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.
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.
Watch the trailer: