A nation’s inequities can be seen in how they fall asleep. Some people are not going to sleep using pretty onesies and looking all graceful while ascending to dreamland. The hard truth is that sometimes we cannot even fall asleep at all. Some may sleep in places we do not find the most ideal, and more bitter than that some people around us are used to those facts.
In Ben Voit’s “Night Upon Kepler 452B”, people try to fall asleep. Initially, that is what I thought. It will just be a film that revolves around people half-asleep, trying so hard to sleep. I didn’t expect much in the first half of the film because I was so engrossed in the atmosphere; Voit employs a beautiful artistic approach that delights my eyes. Also, as a ‘documentary,’ I’m curious what facts this film will reveal.
My thinking about the nation’s inequities does not come out until half of the film rolls, as some people wander a city at night, waking up people sleeping on a sidewalk. Intimacy permeates the atmosphere. This is when the thought on the nation’s inequities came up. Thoughts racing on my mind as I ask myself, can I conclude how unequal life in Germany is? From that conclusion, can I look back inside my own country? In a city that never sleeps, does it mean the states and their citizens are faulty?
The Human Empathy
“Night Upon Kepler 452B” has been selected and competed in various worldwide festivals, from the 2020 Busan International Short Film Festival to the 2020 Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. The film got nominated for both International Competition. At 2020 Clermont-Ferrand, the festival interviewed Ben Voit talking about “Night Upon Kepler 452B”; on what the film is about and what inspires the film. Based on Ben’s Voit interview at Clermont-Ferrand International Film Festival 2020 and my observation after watching the movie, I will analyze how “Night Upon Kepler 452B” tries to touch on homelessness in such a subtle and beautiful way.
In “Night Upon Kepler 452B”, a city never sleeps but does particularly want to. It is winter’s night in Berlin, thousands of people are looking for a place to sleep. A winter bus goes around the city all night long; they stay awake, making sure everyone will wake up to a new morning. On the other side, we get a peek of people who are constantly on the run, the volunteers, that have not slept in a real bed for almost decades. With this attempt, Voit tries to understand what’s going on out there. Voit also mentioned that he also volunteers to help the people looking for a place to sleep. During the process, he noted that the volunteers were all tired and sleepless for different reasons. They have not been sleeping for days. The protagonists told him in their perspective, the border between reality and fiction becomes blurred, everything seems a little surreal after afterwhile. We can also hear these remarks in the film. Looking at this interview, I think “Night Upon Kepler 452B” is inspired by Voit’s empathy. As he delved deep, participating in volunteers night-to-night activities, he found the protagonists are heroic, in how they are capable of managing themself to help those looking for a place to sleep, while they are the one who has not been sleeping for days.
When asked about his reference in the making of “Night Upon Kepler 452B”, Ben Voit mentioned the aesthetic approach visible in the film. Often, other documentaries touching on sensitive issues put the protagonists situated in a deadpan, vulnerable position. Ben tried to find a way not to do that. As a result, overly intimate shots and surreal imagery builds up the film’s distinctive persona. It brings something fresh for me; a subtle, dreamy approach to highlighting such sensitive matter.
The Case of a Nation
Most of the time with such a sensitive matter like homelessness in a country, we will be served with a documentary that describes the cold hard facts and statistical data with loud, crystal-clear interviews and heart-wrenching imagery. Holding on to these typical characteristics, I know it will be easy to estimate how inequal a life is in a country. However, in this film, I did not find anything provocative regarding the subject matter; instead, I found people’s sleep looks captivating.
As I listened to Ben Voit’s remarks throughout the interview, I cannot help but question, “What is the sensitive matter?”. We can hear the term “homeless” exist within the film, as report calls from the neighborhood telling the audience that the homeless are disturbing them by sleeping in inappropriate spaces. But within the interview, the director itself didn’t ever mention the term “homeless”. He always refers to those as “people”. He did bring up the word “sensitive issue” but never precisely addressed the matter, even the who’s or what’s. From this circumstance, Let’s wonder how Ben Voit’s approach can expose this “sensitive issue”, the case of a nation.
Since the beginning of “Night Upon Kepler 452B”, Ben Voit does not ever intend to answer the case. For me, the film is such a slow-burner. As the film ends and the credits roll, the “sensitive issue” Ben forementioned starts to bring itself to me. Voit’s approach to his documentary seems to show the bare truth of the issue it brings. However, I found a much bigger problem underneath, on how a nation can abandon its people.
Throughout the film, I found no other keyword that can precisely describe the problem within the film rather than “falling asleep”. The homeless were seen sleeping in unusual places. It was a winter night in Berlin, and the volunteers have not been sleeping for days. I know getting enough sleep is essential for every human life, and the problem exists for the protagonists because of its lack. Because of this, the protagonist’s perspective on how the border between reality and fiction becomes blurry.
But once again, I cannot help but wonder how the volunteers exist in the first place. The volunteers exist because they volunteered themselves. But for what? As we see through the film, thousands of people in Germany are still looking for a place to sleep, and the volunteers help them. Why are the homeless still looking for a place to sleep? I did not find the answer in the film. I found the film tends to be somewhere between informative/not informative. Nothing’s wrong with that. I could fail to grasp the clear idea of the film, or if the director already intended to achieve that goal, which with my experience, he successfully did.
If we go back to the unanswered question I have, It does not mean it reveals the film’s weakness or the director’s fault. In any kind of film, the director’s choice plays a significant part in how the film could look. Earlier I explained that in the beginning, I got distracted by the film’s mesmerizing imagery. Ben Voit with his cinematographer, Konrad Waldmann, seems precise and knows what they want, and they master their choices. Their decisions to use overly intimate shots and captivating landscapes as the problem progresses are consistent throughout the film, and they understand its fragility. I recognize it as a façade; beneath its beauty, it masked a weakened nation that appears to be struggling to resolve its homelessness issue.
In Voit’s interview with CFISFF, his experience volunteering at the winter bus is one thing in particular that needs to be highlighted. From his interview, I could conclude that Ben Voit’s participated, interacted, and in the end, became empathic, as he wondered what such strength could the volunteers have; to be helping people sleep while being sleepless. And with this experience he has, I believe the anthropological approach he did is giving the spotlight to the homelessness issue happening in Germany as raw as it could. I think Voit’s never aimed to dissect more on what they found on the field. And I found this very clever. His attempt is just enough. Voit shines the light on the events that occurred during that winter night; when Berlin never sleeps, the people march to the street, helping each other through the night.
Not With a Bang, But With a Whimper
People have their way of paying respect. And regarding “Night Upon Kepler 452B”, I believe the film exists not to be showy or become valiant. It’s Ben Voit’s way of paying full respect to what he experiences firsthand, putting himself on the frontline of helping people looking for a place to sleep in Berlin. Because of his consistent and intimate perspective on this significant issue, I think the director knew his priority, and he took a profound approach in making the issue visible. And then, from what’s visible in “Night Upon Kepler 452B”, we could conclude that you don’t have to put in the loud interviews, statistical data, or heart-wrenching imagery to show something that seems to matter. With just a peek through the volunteers’ perspectives and opinions, we can see how one of the most developed countries with a high life expectancy index is seen absent; and through its citizens, we can see it seems to be struggling to tackle its homelessness issue, these are enough to show how broken the system is. From the volunteers initiative, we can see the states failed to show up when it’s citizens were in need.
From this motive, I can see that Voit’s not making “Night Upon Kepler 452B ” for the audience to know or serving its duty to be an informative documentary. Ben Voit and his Kepler 452b are here to pay full respect to those volunteers in the frontline, to give dignity for their duties and challenging works.