December 22, 2017

Dare To Dream: In conversation with Willem Baptist

Featured Portrait of Willem Baptist © Jorgen Caris. Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by Amy Heaton.

Willem Baptist is a filmmaker, producer, and writer based in Rotterdam – The Netherlands. His debut feature is the cinematic journey Instant Dreams that pays homage to the medium of instant photography. He told Polaroid Originals that his vision for the feature was inspired by the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or The Holy Mountain, whereby a group of strangers is connected by the same unconscious dream. In this instance; keeping instant film alive. The selection of individuals he cast is each deeply connected to the format in their own special ways. Following the premiere of the film at IDFA this month, we chatted with Willem about his inspiration for the movie – and his fascination with the ethereal quality of Polaroid pictures. 

This is the year that we brought back the original Polaroid vision, but you didn’t know that when you set about creating the movie. Why did you feel that now was the right time to tell this story?

A culmination of many things. It all started with coming to terms with my desire to keep on shooting my films on S16mm while moving to digital. Trying to keep that feel of cinematic mystery alive in a digital world using artificial means. Secondly the realization that many people do the same, putting filters on their digital photos to make them feel more ‘analog’. With the growing popularity of analog instant film, I saw an interesting way to use this as a metaphor to tell a bigger story about our relationship with photographic images and our desire to capture our dreams. The rebranding to Polaroid Originals proves to me just how strong that desire is. I couldn’t be happier about the timing.

You have chosen to feature an eclectic cast from all over the world. Why did you choose to feature these characters and their intimate relation to the medium as opposed to looking to a more famous figure connected to the Polaroid name, such as Warhol for example?

Artist Stefanie Schneider, scientist Stephen Herchen, and author Christopher Bonanos are starring. It would have certainly been easier to convince people of why this movie should be made had I chosen the celebrity route. Not taking into account that shooting a documentary in places like New York, L.A., Berlin, Tokyo would be a challenge in of itself. I really wanted to tell a global story in which I slowly unravel how the cast has a deeper relationship with instant film and Polaroid than meets the eye, where we can discover how each of them represents certain paradoxical and fascinating aspects of the instant film experience. The artistry versus the medium, history, and science versus magical dreamlike experiences, and futurism versus the actual future. Working with celebrities would have lessened the sense of mystery and discovery.

Who is your movie for, is your hope that it will inspire a new generation of instant film photographers to go out and buy a Polaroid camera?

I would say free-thinking cinema and photography connoisseurs with good taste, but of course, I would just be kidding. Almost everybody knows what a Polaroid photo is or has at least one in his or her photo album. I think the movie is more like a cinematic journey than a typical documentary and is relevant for a much broader audience. It touches upon some of the lesser-known peculiar fundamentals of why we take pictures, how these moments relate to our memories and dreams. I wanted to explore what that says about human nature. There are aspects that are at the root of the invention and use of Polaroid photography but also have relevance to everyone shooting pictures today; be it with their iPhones or pro photographers shooting on the latest hi-tech equipment. If my movie in some way inspires a new or current generation of instant film users, that would be great.

You focus on the connectivity that Polaroid photographs create in our modern world. Do you feel that this human connection is more important than ever in our digital age built on online connectivity?

The more connected we are, the smaller the world seems to get and the less we really experience. When is the last time you got lost, really lost? I can’t remember. I really enjoy the digital age but I’m also old school, in a sense that I really have strong memories of writing pen-pals and waiting for an actual letter to arrive weeks later, discovering weird records on your own in a record shop or winding up in alien places because you just walked miles in one direction because you felt like it. Embracing the unexpected is something I feel that is lacking nowadays. I would say it’s harder to get the full human experience when there isn’t time to take it all in; the good, the bad and the strange.

Can you remember the first time you held or saw a Polaroid photograph, what was it and who shot it?

Yes, certainly. It’s a picture made by my mom or dad of me – maybe 5 of 6 years-old – on my new bike in front of the Christmas tree. Unfortunately, the picture got lost somehow. And I clearly remember the first time I took a Polaroid myself when I was 15 years-old; it was like a day-dream appeared in front of my eyes.

Of all of the places that you shot to create the movie, which was the most interesting location for you?

So many! Making this movie, traveling all over the world really was a trip of a lifetime where I endured weird and wonderful things. I almost got shot on my first night in the USA for accidentally trespassing on someone’s property, I also was briefly interviewed by a homicide detective the next morning because a murder had taken place in town a couple of days before. I experienced the definition of BBQ sauce in a dodge bar in California, had chicken bones for dinner in Tokyo, met street photography legend Louis Mendes while in NYC and got a crash course in chemical engineering from Polaroid Originals chemical engineer Stephen Herchen in Germany.

What was the most interesting or unusual fact you uncovered whilst researching for the film?

That only 20% of what we think we see is accurate information coming from our eyes, 80% is a subjective recreation of it formed in our brains. Brains are imperfect and faulty machines; they make all kind of weird and fantastic connections. There is an argument to be made that we see with our feelings instead of our eyes.

‘Instant Dreams’ already premiered in The Netherlands where it was nominated at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and is showing in theatres there, and in Belgium. The film is set to premiere in the USA at Slamdance Film Festival in February. For more info visit: