Caught by the River

Sleep Furiously

2nd June 2009


The Welsh – certainly the errant, migratory ones – have a tendency to over-emote when talking about their homeland. The Welsh language even has a word for a peculiar kind of longing that a Welsh person feels for the country when displaced – hiraeth. This abstract concept regularly gets wheeled out by the dewy eyed and homesick – usually sometime around last orders or when “Land Of My Fathers” gets an airing. I can state this with some confidence – I am one of the worst exponents of this trait.

We Welsh, we eulogize Welsh music, Welsh writers, Welsh beer, Welsh sporting achievements, Welsh clothes, Welsh cuisine even (although there really is nothing to miss home about there). And we take it very badly when things don’t pan out the Taff way. Witnessing the sight of Welsh men reduced to bitter, salty tears over rugby scores is like a watching a Lottery winner have their ticket maliciously set fire to in front of their face. To outsiders, these unswerving, uncritical patriotic characteristics are at best baffling, at worst they send the blood rushing to boiling point (check AA Gill’s ‘ugly little trolls’ diatribe or Ann Robinson’s comments on Room 101 – actually, maybe don’t bother, they’re both abhorrent idiots who anyone – Welsh, English, Scottish or Irish – would gladly catapult out into the sea).

It’s funny then to see someone putting all these feelings – all these bi-polar thoughts that we Welsh are constantly at the mercy of – onto the cinema screen. The film, Sleep Furiously, is a meditation on Welshness itself. In Sleep Furiously there is no real narrative, no linear plot, no actors and very little music. What there is, though, is a 92 minute documentary that breathes with an innate understanding of the natural environment and what that environment means to it’s people. Amazingly, the film has managed to evoke feelings of hiraeth in some of the hardest nosed newspaper hacks, wherever they may hail from.

The film is shot in Trefeurig, a small village in mid-Wales, just 50 miles away from the supposed location of Llaruggub, the mythical town in Under Milk Wood. Its focus alternates between the countryside, the wildlife and the people. People’s stories intertwine, they wash through the film like tides, recurring and calming. The pace of life is resolutely set to pondering speed. You watch a mobile library trundle at 30 miles an hour from one side of a valley to the other, in real time. You watch a flock of sheep, picked out in the distance by a locked off camera, as they arch across a hillside. It looks like a cutaway of an ant colony in negative, or tiny pinprick clouds hovering over a vivid sea of green. Water shot in timelapse looks like so much static on a clapped out black and white TV. You watch as a cat watches the camera, curious yet unaffected. It’s then you realize you are slowing to the films pace, it won’t speed to yours.

If there is a story at the heart of Sleep Furiously, it’s maybe about the changes that ‘progress’ attempts to thrust upon small communities. The village’s school is threatened with closure. The locals, unsurprisingly, believe the loss of the school would be the start of the village’s decline. Watching the film, I found myself thinking back to Paul Kingsnorth’s masterful state-of-the-nation address Real England and about how economic decisions made by local (or national) bureaucracy actually effect real people. Outcomes are invariably bad; be it the loss of a school, a pub, a post office or a bus route. Livelihoods are lost as community focus points are boarded up. Villages wither and die. Thankfully, the film’s stately pace features other life cycles, other hopefully signs – calves and pigs are born, faithful canine companions hobble along faithfully after their owners, a sheep launches itself into the air with the grace and confidence of a well sheared Olympian.

Ultimately, Sleep Furiously won’t be for everyone. Pensive and brooding once second, wry and optimistic the next then back again – I’m not even sure it will appeal to all Welsh folk. But for this one, sat writing this in Hackney listening to the continuous white noise loop of police sirens and helicopters, it’s a pitch perfect meditation on everything I love about Wales.

There really is no higher praise from me.

Watch the trailer here, or here to read the review from Sight And Sound which says the film “beats Dylan Thomas hands down”.