How Locarno Winner Nele Wohlatz Explores Migrants’ Loss of a Sense of Belonging in Berlinale Film ‘Sleep With Your Eyes Open’

German filmmaker Nele Wohlatz’s “Sleep With Your Eyes Open,” which had its world premiere on Saturday in the Encounters section of the Berlin Film Festival, tells a story about the search for a sense of belonging in a foreign country.

It starts with Kai, a young Taiwanese woman with a broken heart, arriving at a Brazilian beach resort for a holiday. Here, her life crosses paths with a group of Chinese migrants living in a luxury tower block, and in particular a young woman called Xiaoxin, who accepts her fate, and Fu Ang, who is working in an umbrella store when we meet him but harbors ambitions to become wealthy.

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Xiaoxin writes about her life on a series of postcards, which are never sent and are eventually discarded. Kai finds them and reads them, provided a connection between the two women. At one point, we stop following Kai and our attention shifts to Xiaoxin and Fu Ang.

Among the filmmakers who have influenced Wohlatz’s film are Martín Rejtman, one of the founders of the New Argentine Cinema. “He has this very deadpan, absurd humour, and works with highly professional actors, but they are very low key in their expressions,” she tells Variety.

She also “adores” the films of the late Edward Yang, who was part of the Taiwanese New Wave. “He reads the city, in his case Taipei, as if there were meaning [in the shots] you could read. He finds those very elegant shots in order to organize the chaos on the street, the traffic, the people, the architecture, and puts it together as if there was a meaning you could read. And it’s almost like a foreign perspective that he throws on his own city,” she says.

The genesis of “Sleep With Your Eyes Open” lay in Argentina where Wohlatz had been living for a decade. “Ten years is the time where you kind of lose the sense of belonging to your original country, but also start to find out that in that new society, you’re never really going to be a natural, organic or indivisible part of everything,” she says.

In Argentina, she directed her debut fiction feature, “The Future Perfect,” which follows a young Chinese immigrant – played by Xiaobin Zhang – who is trying to learn Spanish. It went on to win Locarno’s Golden Leopard for the best first feature in 2016 and was invited to more than 70 international film festivals.

“It was about how we reconstruct identities through language after migration, and it was a very playful and optimistic film, which played with those possibilities,” she says. “But both of us started to feel there was something darker that had to do with this, like losing a sense of belonging.”

“I was looking for a context, because I work a lot with found reality. It’s a scripted film, but I work a lot with real people and their stories. I was looking for a context where I could make a film with people who are not from that place, and who couldn’t go anywhere else and do not belong anywhere.”

At a film festival she met Brazilian filmmaker Kléber Mendonça Filho, who later became a producer on the film. He told her of these luxury twin tower blocks in Recife, Brazil, where a group of Chinese migrants were living, having earned a good living by importing cheap goods. “There was a conflict that had to do a lot with racist prejudice and cultural intolerance and ignorance,” she says.

She planned to make “Sleep With Your Eyes Open” with Zhang, and they traveled to Recife to do their research and interview members of the Chinese community. Zhang later returned to China so wasn’t cast in the film.

Talking about the film’s themes, Wohlatz says: “I found that this question of belonging, or this losing a sense of belonging, can have many different reasons, and is not only connected to migration but can also happen in any adults’ lives through other curves that life takes, like a break up or whatever.”

Despite the rootlessness of the characters there are “moments of redemption when [the characters] connect,” Wohlatz says. “These are only short and passing moments, where they enter into a real connection with each other, and are the moments that let them forget their troubles.”

Sleep With Your Eyes Open
Sleep With Your Eyes Open

Having one woman, Xiaoxin, write about her life on the postcards, and another, Kai, reading them, is an important part of the film’s structure.

“It’s actually the engine of the whole thing because for me, this is how they construct their sense of belonging,” Wohlatz says. “One is starting to use language in order to describe her life, but she also needs the other who reads what she has written, and this invisible friendship or belonging that this act creates between them is how those characters and how we use the film to offer some light.”

The cast was a mix of a few professional actors and several non-professionals. Although the non-professionals felt some “discomfort” about being on set, this was appropriate given the unease of the characters. The Confucian approach to life exhibited by the Chinese actors appealed to Wohlatz. “There’s a lot of dialogue, and they are quite expressive about their concerns, but there’s always the option of leaving things unsaid or having quite a stony face. Whatever happens, the face doesn’t change a lot and doesn’t get too hysterical or reactive.”

Production design and cinematography also played a role in reinforcing the film’s themes. For example, a fish tank in the apartment is front and center in some of the scenes, and seems to mirror the lives of the migrants. There are no plants or decoration in the tank, and the apartment itself is sparsely decorated. The way the fish aimlessly swim around their tank is similar to the self-contained lives of the migrants. “I thought: ‘Wow, they are living isolated lives but together, and in this completely improvised setup without really starting to choose nice furniture or to decorate the room, and perhaps living like this for 15 years or something.”

Windows and other openings have a symbolic role in terms of the cinematography of Roman Kasseroller. “We tried to compose a lot of shots with openings or windows, where you have characters often in front of a window, and then the city is outside, and that marks a separation between the bodies and the rest of the world. Like this togetherness, but which is always also an isolation or separation.”

Sleep With Your Eyes Open
“Sleep With Your Eyes Open”

Wohlatz also created a feeling of threat with frequent mentions of the sharks in the sea, and violent acts or crimes in Brazil, so that the characters are never at ease. Wohlatz’s background is in documentary filmmaking, and then she began creating a hybrid between fiction and documentary. “Sleep With Your Eyes Open” is entirely fiction, but there is still evidence of her documentary roots. “As I said, I work a lot with the elements that I find during the research or during the shoot,” she says. “I also needed to maintain some tension because the film is not driven by action and consequences so much, but still there are many things happening. At the same time, I really wanted to go against the classical narrative structure of the hero’s journey, which would be a way to organize the film and then keep the attention of the spectators.

In my experience, working with members of the Chinese community in Argentina, and then in Brazil, there was something happening that went against the European traditional structure, because people were just coming and going. All of a sudden, because of work, they moved to another city or another country or they went back to China, and I wanted to make this part of the story.”

“But often it’s still this traditional narrative structure that is used in order to tell the stories and there’s some mis-balance in it, because it’s a very Eurocentric and maybe also very masculine structure. But we have other stories to tell. So, I decided on this risky structure of taking the heroine away and replacing her with the other one and hoping that people would engage enough in order to not be completely thrown out, and keep you in there.”

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