'Instant Dreams' Review: Stuck in the Past

Writers, artists, and scientists lament about the end of Polaroid in this documentary by Willem Baptist.

Synergetic Distribution

After Polaroid closed its doors in 2008, a group of enthusiasts bought the last remaining working factory with hopes to discover its secret chemical formula. Dr. Edwin Land, the scientist and inventor who co-founded Polaroid, kept the science of the popular instant photo brand under lock and key, going so far as giving each chemical a code name to keep their own employees in the dark.

Stephen Herchen, once a collaborator with Dr. Land, now hopes to rediscover the elements of Polaroid that enabled a photograph to develop in just 60 seconds. Willem Baptist‘s film Instant Dreams follows Herchen along with other quirky Polaroid superfans as they grapple with the loss of their beloved instant film.

If you’re interested in the process of recreating a secret formula, this is not the film for you. Instant Dreams isn’t so much about the future of Polaroid pictures as it is a poetic exploration of why humans connect to the unique analog format. With long sequences of abstract, colorful graphics, the documentary is reminiscent of Tree of Life or 2001: A Space Odyssey in both its visuals and its philosophical content.

The film is communicated entirely through voiceover monologues spoken by German photographer Stefanie Schneider, Instant: The Story of Polaroid author Christopher Bonanos, and a young woman who discovered Polaroid photography in Japan.

Each of these subjects laments the loss and significance of Polaroid’s formula, suggesting the film’s chemical compositions mirror our own chemical makeup. They show off their final packs of already expired film and demonstrate the social aspects of taking someone’s picture. Bonanos suggests at one point that the 60-second wait time forces people to chit chat while waiting for the film to develop, bringing us closer to our fellow man.

The dialogues throughout the film are dramatic and soaking with nostalgia, clearly displaying the subjects’ love of their Polaroid film and what it represents to them. Watching passionate people work is compelling, but watching them speak can have more of an impact. When we see the excitement and drive in someone’s eyes as they discuss their devotions, it convinces us of what they’re trying to convey.

Unfortunately, Instant Dreams spends almost the entire film hiding their interviews behind B-roll. Beautiful and flowery B-roll, but B-roll all the same. There are only so many times you can watch shots of Schneider soaking in her outdoor desert bathtub before it loses its effect.

The most compelling — and shortest — plotline of Instant Dreams features the young woman in Japan who uses a Polaroid camera to document her life. She takes pictures of the city around her as well as selfies with her friends and even listens to Werner Herzog explaining how to load film correctly.

This woman perfectly represents the future of instant film and how Millennials fit in with the format. Her pictures are delicately pinned to her bedroom wall, and she steps back to take a picture of the collage with her phone. With a click, the photo of her photos is shared to Instagram.

This young woman shows us how instant photography can move into the future, while the other subjects hold onto their fear of letting go. It’s a shame that we don’t spend more time with the young photographer and instead focus on the older generations, desperately holding onto the past. Maybe someone should introduce them to Fujifilm’s Instax photos?

Dylan is a Chicago local with a love of documentary filmmaking, television, and her pet rabbit, Paul. When she's not working at her full-time job at tastytrade.com, you can find her cooking for friends or discussing the brilliance of The Fast and Furious franchise.