The Hollywood Medical Reporter – “Sleepless in America”

The National Geographic Channel examines the science of sleep in the upcoming television event, Sleepless In America, premiering tonight at 8 PM EST/PST. Brain Blogger editor Dr. Shaheen Lakhan and I were invited for a sneak peak.

Sleep is the third pillar of good health, along with diet and exercise. This highly anticipated film exposes the hidden epidemic of sleep deprivation. It turns out that losing sleep deprives us of a whole lot more than we might think.

John HoffmanWith this production, award-winning producer Hoffman continues his legacy of sharing groundbreaking content that reflects a refreshing ability to present ethically accurate entertainment.

He’s known for spearheading unprecedented collaborations with The Public Good Projects and America’s foremost scientific authority, the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Here, he begins an effort with these authorities to draw the nation’s attention to the science of sleep.

In addition to placing demonstrable importance on facts, Hoffman does not ignore the other responsibilities and necessities in producing an effective and ethical entertainment: he never forgets that he must create content that is not simply accurate, but also engaging and entertaining.

When we hear the word “documentary,” we inevitably conjure up some notion of capturing reality in a way that’s factual and accurate. However, the film technique known as “Cinema Verite” (direct cinema) – having first gained popularity in early 1960’s France – is fundamentally characterized as filming people and things in uncontrolled, unrehearsed and non-manipulated situations. This is all done in an effort to capture as much of the “essence of reality” as possible.

Of course, capturing total objectivity on screen is impossible. Even if such a thing was possible, such a film or TV program would have no obvious entertainment qualities. And as such, no one would watch it, rendering the exercise pointless.

In Sleepless In America, Hoffman shows a deep understanding of the multidimensional nature of documentary film. To rely on facts is absolutely a necessity, but it is not the whole package. This is something I believe so many films – documentaries and fiction films alike – fail to achieve or neglect to even strive for.

This can be seen first and foremost with the NIH’s involvement. Hoffman explained to me just how significant this collaboration is. For one thing, it demonstrates how the National Geographic Channel (NGC) appreciates the multidimensional aspects of the global health problem of sleeplessness. As such, they deemed it their responsibility to employ America’s foremost scientific authority – the NIH. Their goal was to draw attention to the fact that our lack of sleep is the most striking omission in today’s health conversation; the inclusion of the NIH in Sleepless In America adds scientific authority to the start of that conversation.

This NGC-NIH collaboration produced a meeting of the minds and abilities. As Mr. Hoffman told me:

“The NIH understands the importance of storytelling. They come to understand and learn and trust that we have a commitment and a need to use storytelling as a need to connect to any viewer, to hold their attention, and to make them feel that they can relate to the content.”

This documentary includes leading experts in the field who demonstrate, though scientific studies, that lack of sleep can have a direct correlation with many severe conditions. We see that it is correlated with an increase in the growth of cancer. We also see that 70% of high school students are sleep deprived, increasing their risk of suicide, mood problems and delinquency.

Hoffman knows that his show must present these scientific stats in a digestible form for the average viewer. And perhaps even more so, he knows it must be presented in a manner that viewers can relate to and feel the urgency of the subject.

This understanding is most clear in the basic structure of the documentary. The story is framed around a tragic car accident suffered by the Howard family. A drowsy driver crashed into and killed Mr. Howard’s wife and two of his children, and chronically injured the two survivors. This human story pulls in the viewer emotionally, beyond the statistics, graphs and studies, to show the real human face of the issue. It is dramatic and it is effective.

The documentary closes with Mr. Howard saying:

“As we start to learn about what happened with the accident, and that it was likely drowsy driving, I started thinking about the accountability. We make our own choices. If you’re drunk and you get into a car you made that choice. If you’re too tired and you get into a car, you made that choice. But if it is a medical facility or a trucking company or an industry that demands of their personnel to go beyond the limits of the human body in performance of their jobs, what is the accountability there? If our tragedy can create awareness, and if we can save one life, then I can’t say it would be worth it, but I can say that they wouldn’t have died in vain.”

I agree that nothing can ever bring real justice to such a senseless tragedy. But endeavors such as Sleepless In America, help spread awareness by posing tough questions, and presenting the facts. Like so many effective – and scientifically ethical – documentaries, Sleepless In America appropriately assigns the responsibility of action to the viewer.

Image via Brian A. Jackson / Shutterstock.

Daliah Leslie

Daliah Leslie is a professional writer, media and brand strategist, specializing in the film and television industry. Before moving to Los Angeles, Daliah worked in project development for Oscar winners Michael Lynne and Bob Shaye at Unique Features. Her interdisciplinary background includes collaborating with Pulitzer Prize winning author, Joseph J. Ellis (on a screen treatment for his award-winning book) and has shared her know-how on initiatives such as The Fox Writers Intensive and various other screenwriting competitions and festivals. Daliah's work on an innovative, original TV medical pilot is what led her to meet Brain Blogger founder, Dr. Shaheen Lakhan and begin their many collaborative endeavors. She now lends her expansive knowledge of the art and business of the film and television industry as a freelance journalist and has come to be known as "The Hollywood Medical Reporter," for her precision and passion for ethically accurate entertainment.
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