Another Earth (Mike Cahill, 2011)

On the night that a duplicate Earth is discovered in our Solar System, Rhoda (Brit Marling) a teenage student, drunk after celebrating her entry to M.I.T. causes a horrific accident which brings her crashing into the orbit of composer John Burroughs (William Mapother). After four years in prison, Rhoda returns to her parents’ home to try rebuilding her life and to come to terms with her guilt. An intelligent science student, instead of using her book-smarts to look for a decent, well-paying job, she instead signs on to work in the maintenance department of the local high school, where she won’t have to think too hard or interact with too many other people.

Her path crosses with Burroughs again on the fifth anniversary of the accident which binds them, and Rhoda decides to try making her peace with the composer; all the while Earth 2 hovers over them like a giant shadow. When it is discovered that it contains intelligent life, a competition is run to find people to make the first space trip to the new planet.  Seeing an opportunity to make a fresh start, Rhoda soon finds herself torn between two worlds.

The premise of Another Earth obviously combines elements of science-fiction, but weds them to a more down to earth drama, which deals with a young woman’s struggle to make sense of where her life has led her, and her desire to atone for the suffering she has caused another.  The talented Brit Marling (who also gets a credit as co-writer and co-producer) is terrific as the fragile, damaged Rhoda. Where it might have been tempting to go for an Oscar-worthy performance, Marling instead underplays, gaining our sympathy slowly but surely. It is a confident, assured performance, as it needs to be, given that she is in nearly every scene; and she is well supported by William Mapother as Burroughs.

First-time feature director Cahill handles directorial duties with aplomb. There are some nice stylistic touches, especially in the sound design; and though the film creaks in places, it wears its indie heart on its sleeve, and the Earth 2 effects are both persuasive and impressive. It’s an impressive debut and it’ll be interesting to see where both Cahill and Marling go from here.

Another Earth is on general release.

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Sleep Furiously (Gideon Koppel, 2008)

Gideon Koppel’s first feature is set in the remote Welsh farming community where he spent most of his childhood and teenage years. His parents were German Jews who escaped the Nazi’s and fled to a new life in the United Kingdom; settling in Liverpool, they eventually bought a smallholding in the district of Trefeurig in Wales, a community which once traded on its lead and silver mines.

Koppel’s film patiently and eloquently observes the locals as they go about their daily business, over the course of twelve months. There is no voice-over narration, just beautifully composed images that quietly document these villagers’ quite busy lives. Koppel uses the loose framing device of a mobile Library van, which travels the county, to act as a metaphorical container for the stories of the villagers; but it also provides a welcome and much-needed social hub, around which the local community congregates. The scenes featuring the van are among the most enjoyable in the film, as they unhurriedly document the easy, natural relationship the locals have with the knowledgable Librarian, as well as with each other and the books themselves. For a remote community, these locals enjoy a full and well-rounded cultural life; taking in choral recitals and choir practice as well as getting through an impressive monthly supply of books.

Koppel has said that he didn’t set out to make a documentary, and certainly one could argue that as soon as a scene is framed in a certain way, or certain decisions are made to present an image in a particular way, one is creating fiction. Sleep Furiously doesn’t act as documentary; it doesn’t isolate or focus on any one character, or set of characters, as conventional documentary features are wont to do. Instead it matter of factly presents people (without identifying them) going about their daily activities – tilling the land, shearing sheep, mending fence-posts. In doing that, it says more about this particular farming community, and disappearing ways of living, than any number of well-meaning polemical documentaries.  No-one speaks directly to camera, or even seems to be aware that it is there, and there is real craft and great art in what this first-time director has created.

Men at work - a scene from Sleep Furiously

It shares a sensibility with Ken Wardrop’s His & Hers, and with the acclaimed Italian feature from last year,Le Quattro Volte, which caused critics everywhere to fall over themselves and each other, dragging out every superlative in the book. Yet, that latter film, while enjoyable, didn’t move me in any real way; instead of being artful, it was too full of artifice and premised on a pretentious philosophical idea which for me, didn’t really work. In contrast, Sleep Furiously feels like truer art, and is truly artful.

It was described by the critic and film-maker Mark Cousins as “pure cinema”, and it most certainly is that. Its images are beautifully and carefully composed; the community are presented sympathetically, the music (mostly by Aphex Twin) is well chosen and the sound design is impeccable. The effect of time passing is shown simply in the changing of the seasons; space is created for the audience to think for themselves and fill in any blanks; there is no telling, only showing.

Like its title (taken from a quote by Noam Chomsky) Sleep Furiously is poetic and elliptical. It is a wonderfully moving, life-affirming film of great humility and deserves to be seen.

Sleep Furiously is now available on DVD.

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