sleep furiously Review

There’s no narrator to explain the purpose of Gideon Koppel’s gorgeous meditative documentary feature on the nature of what it means to live in a small farming community in mid-Wales, but the film nonetheless eloquently and evocatively gives a realistic indication of the fate that lies in store for its inhabitants and their way of life. A brief comment at a meeting of villagers concerned with plans to close the village school gives us an indication of where that future lies – it’s a dying community, a dying way of life, the imminent closure of the school following the loss of the post office, the village shop and the ending of the bus service as just the latest in a series of crises that threaten to plunge a once vibrant the community into extinction. But that’s only part of the story, and sleep furiously has many other powerful tools at its disposal to show just what this means and just what is being lost.

For a large part however, there is little spoken in sleep furiously that refers specifically to those concerns, the film instead allowing the images themselves, through some magnificent cinematography and poetic timelapse sequences, to show and capture a sense of what it means to live in a remote rural community – the rolling green hills, the farm cultivation, the tending of livestock and the part that the people of the community play in it. At once, in the play of light and cloud, the plough and the field, the rain and the valley, it captures the sense of simplicity and beauty of living in a closer relationship with nature, but also the challenges and the hardships, sacrifices that are simply accepted as necessary to enjoy and benefit from that lifestyle. But in the rapidly changing modern it’s clearly a way of living that clearly cannot be sustained for much longer.

And it’s not just the beautiful and often impressive imagery that are powerful in conveying that sense of living in such a place – the use of sound is just as effective, if not even more so. The soundtrack is composed of nature and humanity – choirs of birds as much as Welsh choirs, the bleating of sheep, the warm rustle of wind through the trees on a summer day, the murmur and chatter of young infants at the soon to be closed school, the exchanges between the travelling librarian and his customers, and the small talk and memories between elderly ladies speaking in Welsh that opens up another perspective on the past, memory. And in-between, to punctuate and emphasise mood, music by the Aphex Twin adds another level of artistry to the overall creation of the whole picture.

Taking in the whole, people, place and personality are all given equal time in sleep furiously, the relationship between them – as the sequences with the library van indicate – ultimately being what the film is all about. It’s not so much a film documenting an issue that makes the headlines every once in a while when Royal Mail or another bank announced the closure of rural branches, or the influx of English looking for holiday homes, since that’s just a fact and feature of the world and the current economic climate we live in today, an inevitable consequence of a word with rapidly changing values and lifestyles – as much as it’s a document of something undoubtedly precious and beautiful that is going to be lost, perhaps forever.

The film is almost meditative in this regard, somewhat like Into Great Silence, but also like that film beautifully and meaningfully constructed, the narrative being in the seasons, in the connections between them, in the birth of a calf and pigs capturing the whole cycle of life… and inevitably, in the final images of the film, speaking of a kind of death. A post credits image however suggests a more optimistic view of the nature of the inevitability of change in that it can of course also signal the possibility of newness and rebirth.


sleep furiously is released in the UK by New Wave Films. The DVD is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.

For a film that is often quite gorgeous to look at, the transfer is a little bit disappointing. I’m not sure whether it’s the intended look of the film – and can’t think why it might be – but the overall tone is a little bit dull. There is a yellowish tinge that flattens the brightness of the blue skies and the greenness of the fields and hills. The image is also slightly soft and showing a little bit of grain, but presumably shot on 16mm, that’s how it’s going to look. Other than that the amount of detail and information visible is certainly fine and adequate, with reasonable shadow detail. As I find with most New Wave titles, encoding could be problematic, the film looking blocky and riddled with macroblocking artefacts when viewed on my computer monitor, but absolutely fine with scarcely a flicker when upscaled to 1080p on an LCD TV.

It’s unusual for a documentary feature to have much attention paid to the sound design (or at least, much noticeable detail), but in addition to the standard Dolby Digital 2.0 track there is also a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The surrounds are not heavily used, but in a film that really does rely to a large degree on the sound for much of its ambience, it does give a fuller and much more rounded tone than the stereo track, certainly giving an extra bit of punchy reverb to the Aphex Twin soundtrack and other musical compositions.

The film uses fixed subtitles for the Welsh language dialogue, subtitles that are clearly part of the film using the uniform font of the credits and titles. Consequently they are slightly small when not projected theatrically and can sometimes be not quite so clear against brighter foregrounds, but this isn’t an issue most of the time.

The film’s Trailer (1:32) plays up the light-hearted side of the film while still giving an impression of its subject. A Sketchbook for the Library Van (56:48) is the original pilot made for the film, mainly black-and-white, introducing many of the characters who are seen in sleep furiously, who speak directly to the camera, talking about their backgrounds, their work, the history of the place and how things have changed over the years. It’s certainly of interest to anyone who enjoys the main feature and is looking for more background, but the absence of an interview with the director is a regrettable omission for the extra features.

As you can probably imagine, there are going to be a lot of sheep, a lot of hills, valleys, rain and Welsh choirs in any documentary feature dealing with life in a rural Welsh farming community – sheepdog trials and villages fetes don’t get missed either – but even so, sleep furiously manages to avoid any clichéd depiction of its subject and any misplaced polemic about the decline of support for the traditional rural lifestyle. Instead it lets the sounds and images of the locations and regular people going about their daily lives speak for themselves, giving a powerful, meditative and quite beautiful account of a way of life that is changing fast and may not even be around for much longer, alerting us to just what this loss means for us all. I have some reservations about the tone of the transfer and the encoding, but the essential qualities of the film are nevertheless there to see on New Wave’s DVD release of sleep furiously, the film well supported with the original hour-long pilot.

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