Sleep Furiously
Screened in July 2011
Director: Gideon Koppel. Documentary collage of life in the rural community of Trefeurig, Wales, whose citizens both preserve and feel the ebb of very traditional ways of life.
Twitter Capsule: Could use a bit more structure or active inquiry. Still, a lovely, poignant, evocative portrait of rural Wales.
Please note that Sleep Furiously will be streaming for one day only, on Friday, July 29, at the godsend website Fandor. If this sounds like your sort of film but you don't live in a major city where you anticipate theatrical distribution, by all means seize your chance!

Photo © 2008 Bard Entertainments, © 2011 Microcinema International
The key motif in Sleep Furiously, Gideon Koppel's amiable and observant record of behaviors and atmospheres in a rural Welsh community, is the monthly stopover in the village streets of a library on wheels. One of the regular customers is a widow who looks to be in her mid to late 60s. During one visit, she asks the librarian, "Is there anything on the order of an Idiot's Guide to computers?" With the inveterate charm of the slow, thoughtful speaker, he gazes at his shelf and replies, "I do think I've a guide to using Photoshop" and his patron responds, "Oh, I'm not there yet."

Without the press notes, which are an eloquent and informative model of an often corrupt genre, I think I would not have known for sure that this bookworm happens to be the filmmaker's mother, or that the library's visits are strictly monthly. In a way, you don't need to know this objectively, since Sleep Furiously insinuates so much through tone. It's enough to feel the fond, respectful tenderness with which the movie characterizes this serenely lonely woman, on whom we check in often. She loves her books, and makes stoic but clearly adoring visits to her husband's grave. She dotes on her dogs and gets nervous when she can no longer spot one from the knoll where she's hanging the wash. When the pup returns at her call, she is actively proud of him. She receives inconclusive, vaguely ominous news about this smiling dog from its veterinarian with impressive equanimity. The restrained eagerness she telegraphs inside the mobile library, which is statically, even furtively observed from the rear of the aisle, is enough to suggest the specialness of this appointment, even if you don't know its precise itinerary (third Tuesday of every month, from what I read).

Koppel's mother, collecting a list of books that she drolly cannot remember if she selected for herself or if the librarian curated on her behalf, is taking away an Ishiguro novel, a paperback of I Capture the Castle, a guide to cooking with curry, and a few others: a motley array of books arranged by no greater theme than an overall promise of pleasant diversion. On that order, one can easily imagine Sleep Furiously being folded into her monthly bundle, as a sort of Idiot's Guide to Rural Wales, or just as something lovely and modestly eye-opening to look at. If this woman weren't already an inhabitant of this town, she would surely enjoy this document of The Way They Live Now in Trefeurig, Wales. I suspect it would move her in an unpushy way, as it did me, inviting a form of free-floating nostalgia. Where Sleep Furiously is loved—and I'm sure it will be loved by many of the self-selecting viewers who take the initiative to see it—the unmistakable tact of the well-bred bystander, the basic compassion of observation, and the contented refusal of any narrative framing will surely rank among the film's most lauded qualities. It's leisurely and non-judgmental, if also pre-laundered of anything potentially disagreeable. It takes its time, as so few movies do. Koppel provides a kind of local's-eye stroll through this bucolic society, the kind of tour you only ever get from someone who knows the area without being quite of it, at least not anymore. Quite tangibly, he still knows several of the residents, yet the film implies his preserved gift of fading into the wallpaper, so that no one on camera makes an artificial spectacle of themselves in its presence.

There is honor in this kind of undidactic, unintrusive viewing experience, clearly culled from real-time immersion in the rhythms and preoccupations of the region rather than some pre-set agenda for fitting Trefeurig into some mold—of the archetypal small town, perhaps, or as a symbol of a passing way of life, or as a hamlet of colorful kooks. Koppel appears perfectly happy to let the film come to the camera, rather than the reverse. If there are disappointments, too, associated with this approach, they mostly have to do with a vaguely reductive valorization of visual timidity and desultory montage as inherent positives. I share Koppel's implied feeling, further confirmed in the press notes, that modern documentaries have been far too enslaved by the need to force us into their own conclusions, rather than allowing us to observe anything in real time. Sleep Furiously is a rebuttal to that sort of filmmaking, though perhaps too much of one, and in too recessive a way. I don't even normally read press notes, but I did in this case out of a desire for a bit more context than the film wound up providing for itself. I love the feeling of wanting to know more than I am told, but occasionally Sleep Furiously crosses a different boundary, seemingly believing that the only way to respect its subjects and to respect me as an audience member is to absent itself from any active conversation among us. The host needn't strain himself endearing all his guests to each other, but he could at least be a bit more forthcoming as they get to know each other.

Clearly, too, despite the aesthetic of self-effacing objectivity, a sentimental and carefully choreographed agenda is at work here—which is not at all a nefarious fact, just an inevitable truth which seems occasionally to embarrass the film. When we perceive that Koppel's mother does at least know what Photoshop is, albeit by describing it as something she isn't "ready for," or when Sleep Furiously inserts a quick glimpse of a nighttime party among a younger set of villagers and a quick excerpt of their uptempo music, it is clear that Trefeurig is more porous to the world of urban culture and contemporary goods and brands than the film has elsewhere admitted. As legitimate as it is for Koppel to orient the film around the most picturesque and old-fashioned aspects of Trefeurig, his camerawork places a kind of bell jar over the region that is romantic but occasionally feels dishonest, and maybe even limiting of what the film is able to convey, notwithstanding the welcome fact that Sleep Furiously conjures images and sounds that a less relaxed, more rhetorically forceful movie would never have accommodated.

I admit, then, that my enjoyment of Sleep Furiously included the renewed appreciation it gave me for the various ways in which other, comparably soft-spoken documentaries have managed to import a bit more structure, a more fixable point of view, or a morsel of palpable drama, without feeling too ginned-up. I thought of how Yung Chang's Up the Yangtze rushed over to China to capture a "timeless" Asian countryside before an impending and man-made flood, only for the filmmaker to confess in the opening minutes of his movie that the ancient China he meant to photograph has, to his chagrin, already long passed. I thought of how last year's Sweetgrass spent such patient time with the cowboys and sheep-herders of the modern American West, only to gradually tease out the economic desperation and emotional strain barely concealed by the pastoral surface, not as a melodramatic reveal but to offer a lucid observation of a lifestyle that looks one way yet often feels another. I thought of how this year's Le Quattro volte injected its chronicle of rustic Italy with a welcome sense of absurdist comedy and an eloquent, obviously imposed circular structure, and of how Nicolas Philibert's rightfully beloved To Be and To Have says so much about rural Auvergne by persisting within a single-classroom school and cajoling nuance and insight from that microcosm, rather than pushing itself unnecesarily all over the county. If you are drawn to Sleep Furiously, you should absolutely watch it—I can't imagine the movie disappointing anyone in its target audience—but you should leave yourself open to following up with some of these sibling films, some of them among the very best of the last ten years, which call clearer attention than Koppel does to the delicate but nonetheless pivotal frameworks they impose around their own observations.

Admitting that major caveat, however, I not only want to underscore what a simultaneously soothing and engaging experience Sleep Furiously is, but I want to concede that its essential docility may well derive from more than a directorial preference. Signs exist within the film that the kind of pacific disengagement of Koppel's camera actually gets at something organic to the temperaments of Trefeurig. The one event in Sleep Furiously that stands a chance of emerging as a narrative centerpiece (though this does not ultimately come to pass) is the threatened closing of the local school, which some villagers believe is a temporary necessity to make much-needed infrastructural repairs and others believe is a sure sign that the bedrock institution of their tiny town is about to be euthanized. Koppel captures one cordially testy town hall meeting over this issue, but at least as revealing is the afternoon tea he films among his mother and some of her friends. These women discuss the issue in a cascade of Do you knows and No, I don't knows and Should theys and Who can says and What can you dos. A certain polite withholding, even if it masks some firm conviction or desire, seems to be a coin of the realm in Trefeurig, so it may well be apt that Koppel often films in a register very close to this one.

Even still, I don't want to mislead prospective audiences about the piquant humor in the film, as when an offscreen, overheard farmer can't help looking at his prize sow and rhapsodizing about how much he enjoys eating a well-cooked, well-peppered pig's belly, and then reprimands himself for the rudeness of saying so right in front of the pig. In another short scene worth its weight in gold, an old man of Trefeurig stands at a roadway crossing (of which there aren't many in Trefeurig) and recites a poem he has written about the recent retiring of the old, wooden, weather-eroded arrows that until recently directed travelers to the nearby villages. Substituted in their place is some bright, metal, pleasingly solid signage that proves how this little hamlet has come up in someone's view of the world. Both the poem and the scene take a deliciously and unexpectedly comic turn that I won't spoil, as it's just the sort of revelation that a viewer of Sleep Furiously is most likely to savor; among the joyful pleasures of this moment, though, is the proof that even when the documentary itself opts against any editorializing perspective on what it sees, the villagers themselves are able and sometimes inclined to assume some critical distance on where and how they live.

Other virtues of Sleep Furiously are simpler, quieter, and more pervasive. For instance, the democratic attention to animals as well as humans as subjects of interest, without taking that kind of condescending, zoographical perspective that turns man and beast alike into microscopic specimens for our privileged eye. I am thinking, too, of the modest but engrossing spectacle of a local choir master's face as she guides her singers through a new composition, her furrowed concentration briefly infused by the warm pleasure she takes in a high, difficult, but well-sustained note. The color and texture of the damp Trefeurig air, particularly in those early mornings when the shepherds escort their flocks into the field, recall the bowl of water in which you might clean your brush after painting a still life of bluebells. The film doesn't indulge in too much visual preciousness, but it still has a pearly, periwinkle quality, redolent all by itself of the old and inevitably changing Wales of which Sleep Furiously might soon constitute an audiovisual memento, but not a stuffy one. The music, more openly sentimental than the images, may push a little hard at times, but Koppel has not made a manipulative film. If anything, the film could have used a bit more manipulation, but saying so should not discount the pleasures to be found in its humility, its cadences, its fond taciturnity. Grade: B

VOR: (2)   (What is this?)
However real the pleasures of Sleep Furiously, even its fans are unlikely to view them as having primarily to do with originality or risk. I give Koppel credit for resisting the strong currents of narrative framing and didactic purpose that so predominate in modern documentary, but his victory in defying them is one of artistic conviction, not artistic innovation. Sleep Furiously is a very pleasant movie that I am sure I will recommend to several people I know, but for all that I am genuinely fond of it, I will be surprised to see it place on anyone's list of the year's bellwether achievements, or even its indispensable underdogs.

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