One of the best British films I’ve seen in the last 12 months, Gideon Koppel’s Sleep Furiously is a portrait of a rural way of life largely ignored by the media. According to Koppel the feeling is mutual: the farmers and villagers who populate Trefeurig, Wales, don’t pay much heed to all that big city brouhaha. London might as well be a world away.
You could call this a documentary, or “non-fiction film”, but it’s actually a tone poem, an evocation of a particular place and time passing. In the first shot, a long shot of an empty country road, a town crier walks towards the camera, ringing his bell. It’s a signal that what we’re watching is not “reality”: the image is contrived, a poetic conceit. The crier is an archaic figure, an emblem of olde Britain. At the same time the bell-ringing suggests urgency, news, a declaration… Only there is no one to hear it, just a couple of dogs.
So what news does Koppel have to impart? At first, you might think, nothing all that pressing. His method is not what we generally understand by the term “sensational”. Mostly it involves a static camera, and patience. We watch as the clouds traverse the horizon; a woman bakes a cake; a library van winds its way along circuitous country roads… so often, in fact, that sometimes I couldn’t help thinking I was watching an antiquated live action version of Postman Pat. (Probably Koppel has been watching Iranian minimalist Abbas Kiarostami films, not children’s TV, but you never know.)
The pleasure of the movie is not instant gratification, but in admiring the beauty of the compositions, the aural soundscapes borrowed wholesale from Aphex Twin, and from gradually piecing together what it is that Koppel finds so arresting about these folk. There is a personal connection, for example, that throws everything into sharper relief.
The title sounds like it comes from Dylan Thomas (“Do not go gentle into that good night…”). In fact it’s a quotation from Noam Chomsky – “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” – designed to illustrate a grammatical correct but essentially meaningless sentence. The reference is oblique and I suspect that it means something to Koppel, and if you stick with the film it will mean something to you too, though not necessarily the same thing.
To me, it’s what we don’t see that’s most telling: Koppel declines to show people watching TV, or emailing, or heading off to the supermarket – all perfectly normal pursuits in the countryside, just as they are in the city. I don’t think he’s a Luddite. Rather he’s harking back to his own childhood (any maybe before that too), to a pre-modern age when we lived in closer communion with nature.
On one level it’s an act of nostalgia. On another, the film becomes a melancholy meditation on time passing, age, and loss. We see that this community is dying. The school is closing. The young people are moving out.
The woman who is closest to the centre of the film is mourning her pet owl. In a sequence that is both funny and touching she takes it – now expertly stuffed – to a carpenter friend and asks him to adjust the perch the taxidermist has provided. Sitting on his branch, her beloved owl doesn’t fit into the cranny she had in mind for him.
That peculiar mixture of practicality and sentimentality goes to the heart of Sleep Furiously. Koppel recognises that things change, as they must, but he also feels the compulsion to valorize the past.
Is it significant that the woman with the stuffed owl is Koppel’s own mother? Of course it is.
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