I’ve been to see Gideon Koppel’s film about life in small farming community in central Wales, sleep furiously. It’s a film that has divided critics, though I found it engrossing and beautiful. Waking this morning, and now writing this 24 hours later, I’m haunted by scenes that spool again through my mind. I can understand why some might find the film frustrating – it has no narration, what we see is left unexplained and the structure at first seems random (though there is one that follows the seasons).
In a perceptive review of the film in Sight and Sound, John Banville compares the film’s tone to an assertion of quietism by the political philosopher John Gray: ‘Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?’ The film, says Banville, is simply a moving and deeply poetic work of art.
There are so many unforgettable images in this film. One memorable sequence is shot from a high mountainside down into a rain-swept valley into which two lines of sheep straggle slowly from different directions. The shot is held for a long time and is deeply yet inexplicably beautiful. Another sequence cross-cuts between the village choir rehearsing and a majestic shot of the changing light as cloud and rain drive across the hills.
Gideon Koppel grew up in the community of Trefeurig in Ceredigion in Mid Wales, a place which offered his parents refuge from Nazi persecution. He returned in 2006 to produce this film, which features his mother, Pip. In an early sequence she visits the hillside grave of Koppel’s father, Heinz, an artist who died in 1980. She places a stone gently on the grave and as she turns and leaves her departure is seen through an enormous wide shot filmed from across the valley, the masses of trees around her bending in the strong wind.
If there is one thread that binds the film, it is the monthly visits of John Jones and his mobile library van, collecting and delivering books. Gradually we learn that the village school is to close, and the mobile library, so central to the community, is also threatened. Yet John Jones the driver remains quietly intent on preserving the order of things. In his dealings with the inhabitants, conducted in a mixture of Welsh and English, we sense the value of genuine social connection.
Koppel ends the film with a powerful epigraph: “It is only when I sense the end of things, that I find the courage to speak: the courage, but not the words”.
In the elegaic final section, hauntingly scored by Aphex Twin, we observe a series of auction lots of farm implements (a rusted circular saw, a bound pile of stakes, a venerable wheelbarrow); this then modulates into a sequence of shots of the interior of a gloomy, dilapidated, cobwebbed cottage that shows signs of recently departed life: a pair of trousers, a jacket, pegs on a line in the kitchen.
And sit through the final credits because, at the very end there is a final shot of an old tree, leaves blown by the breeze.
The Small Window by RS Thomas
In Wales there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only. A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn; in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich
With looking. Have a care;
The wealth is for the few
And chosen. Those who crowd
A small window dirty it
With their breathing, though sublime
And inexhaustible the view.
sleep furiously trailer
- Appreciation by poet Mark Ford (Guardian)
- Times feature: interviews with Gideon and Pip Koppel and other participants
- Guardian review
- Independent review