Sleep Furiously has been described as a poetic and profound journey into a world of endings and beginnings. In Gideon Koppel’s film, this theme is reflected through the uncertain future of a village school, a mobile librarian’s reluctant move from a paper to digital process of cataloguing and the various time-honoured life cycles of rural existence.
Given the way that Koppel has arranged and presents his material, an audience could be forgiven for imagining that what we’re experiencing is the demise of human life in a particular part of north-east Aberystwyth. The film concludes with ghostly images of a deserted dwelling already succumbing to the ravages of the elements. Reality provides a different picture. After dipping in the 60s as a result of declining industry the region’s population has risen consistently through recent decades and overtaken even the demographic highs which accompanied the mining boom of the 19th century. To be fair, Koppel has refuted any labelling of his film as documentary and so cleverly avoids the medium’s contextual responsibilities. Like the acquiescent signpost in the middle of his film, the filmmaker seems to point rather nonchalantly towards other documentaries – lanes which even a hands-off Direct Cinema documentarian wouldn’t have resisted investigating. Koppel however seems less interested in probing, more in observing.
In an interview with Jason Wood, Koppel shares fragments of inspiration from themes in Peter Handke’s play Kasper: internal and external landscapes; questions about belonging; a sense of what is possible rather than what is or was. More insightful is a reference to Kaspar’s struggle for language. Koppel’s titles refer us to a specific predicament: finding the courage to express oneself in the face of change but not the words to accompany that courage. The form of Sleep Furiously feels very close to this: stunted utterings of anxiety and indignation amidst a prevailing climate of stoicism. The film itself seems to embody the position of a villager at one of the community meetings held to discuss the council’s plans for the local school, and it’s here that Koppel’s titles begin to resonate. Set against a barrage of music practice we focus on individual attendees listening anxiously to announcements of the changes that are to befall them. Occasionally, someone summons the courage to express concerns but never with the fluency that shapes ideas and sustains confrontation. These episodes are sparse and fleeting. Koppel quickly quits the politics for the quietude of daily village practices – art and music teaching, cake-making, restoration, dairy farming, berthing, hay-binding, tilling, sheep herding. Here his camera lingers, almost longingly, as if embodying Kasper’s desire to “be someone like somebody else once was.”
Wood’s appraisal of the work as “lyrical filmmaking at its very best” unnecessarily over-rates the film; seasoned cinephiles will need to moderate that claim. Sleep Furiously requires stepping down a gear in much the same way that sub-Saharan African cinema often does, and once in sync with its languid pace, what is conveyed most distinctly are things already known but always worth being reminded of: the staggering beauty of natural landscape; the simplicity and serenity of rural existence; the enduring spirit of small communities.