I was asked to introduce Gideon Koppel’s elegaic documentary Sleep Furiously at the N21 Film Festival, an event founded to celebrate Winchmore Hill’s transition from a village to a suburb and to commemorate a memoir written by Henrietta Cresswell of her 19th-century childhood in the area.The event was very thought-provoking, especially the group discussion after the film. There’s a review of the evening here and I have posted my introduction below.
Sleep Furiously opens with an image that suggests another era, and in many ways this portrait of a village in west Wales has more to do with history than geography. In particular, that conflict between tradition and the march of progress that Henrietta Cresswell evokes so well in her book about the village of Winchmore Hill. The railways came to transform Winchmore Hill into a suburb, and so too modernity is encroaching on Trefeurig, the village in the film: the laptop in the library van, the threatened closure of the village school.
The residents of Trefeurig, just like those in 19th-century Winchmore Hill, resist some of these changes. And the film itself can be read as an attempt to preserve the village, its crafts and communities, in much the same way that Cresswell preserved the old ways of life that she remembered from her childhood on paper. You’ll see the librarian shouldering more than his fair share of this work, distributing books on local history and making personal visits to older residents. You’ll also see people in the film not just using but celebrating traditional skills, from sheep-farming to cake-baking. The director, Gideon Koppel, also uses a traditional method that is now, in 2012, finally being declared dead: he shot Sleep Furiously on film rather than digital cameras. On top of this, however, he adds a soundtrack from the Aphex Twin, a musician known for his uncompromising electronica.
If this feels contradictory, perhaps it is meant to. The title of the film is taken from a Noam Chomsky quotation, a sentence of his own making: “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.” It’s grammatically correct, but semantically nonsense – a sentence that no one would ever say. A challenge to think about the origin of language and the limits of grammar.
Koppel refuses to explain the name of his film, but he does say: ”The title can generate boundaries in which the film evolves as an autonomous world with its own logic and moralities.” So this film plays by its own rules, and it certainly doesn’t fit into any established genre. Because Koppel says that Sleep Furiously isn’t, despite appearances, a documentary about Trefeurig. Instead, the film is trying to represent an internal landscape – in this case, the village he remembers from his childhood, not the village as it is now. Well, Henrietta Cresswell was doing exactly the same thing.
But before we enjoy the film, I’d like to leave you with a couple of questions. Is the idea of a village in London, a community like the one in Trefeurig, inside the M25, semantic nonsense, just like Chomsky’s colourless green ideas? Or do events such as this festival create an internal landscape of villagehood, offering the residents of N21 a memory of what was once here, and hold back the march of time just a little longer?