The Hidden Life Of Trees: An Interview With Gideon Koppel

ten years after the release of sleep furiously, the film's director Gideon Koppel talks to Adam Scovell about time, the seasons, and agreeing to disagree with Richard D. James

At the turn of the millennium, British cinema began to address the country’s relationship to its landscape with a curiosity and vigour that hadn’t been present for several decades. Arguably starting with Andrew Kötting’s Gallivant (1996), the 2000s were marked by a very particular form of experimental landscape documentary, from Ben Rivers’ Two Years At Sea (2011) to Pat Collins’ Silence (2012).

One of the highpoints of this small, idiosyncratic array of films is Gideon Koppel’s sleep furiously (2008). Made in a year when British cinema was dominated by scale and kinetic spectacle, Koppel’s film found an absorbing quietude in the local, following a Welsh town with an autobiographical eye for one single year.

Boasting a musical score by Aphex Twin and filled with stunning 35mm photography, sleep furiously became one of the watermarks in twenty-first century British documentaries, showing that personal inflection and patient visuals could create beautiful, resonant narratives. Ten years on from its premiere in 2008, we caught up with Koppel to see what had changed and evolved in the intervening years.

How did sleep furiously first come about as a project?

Gideon Koppel: My parents moved to a smallholding near Aberystwyth when I was fourteen years old. They kept cows, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese… made cheese and yoghurt, and grew vegetables on the steep, stony hillside. This kind of life in such an isolated landscape was tough for me as a teenager, but it also had an appeal. Part of that appeal – though I don’t think understood it in that way at the time – was to see my parents experience a contentment and a sense of belonging in the local community. I wanted to make a piece of work which enabled me to explore fragments of memories associated with that part of my life.

What was the aim in regards to what you were trying to capture and how did this relate to the title in the end?

GK: I wasn’t trying to ‘capture’ anything – I was simply curious. Both my parents were German Jewish refugees. Growing up, I had little or no conscious knowledge of their histories… nor of the Holocaust. Politics and history was something rarely, if ever, spoken about at home; silence seemed to be one of their ways of coping and an attempt to protect their children from absorbing something of this ‘forgotten’ history.

Of course it wasn’t forgotten, and in many ways they did not survive their experiences. I was curious about my parents’ lives and how that sense of silence has pervaded my own idiom. In Paul Celan’s Büchner Prize acceptance speech ‘Der Meridian’ he spoke about encountering the self in the explorations undertaken through poetry: “…these are also paths among so many other paths, on which language becomes audible; these are encounters, paths of a voice to a perceiving other, creaturely paths, perhaps a conceived existence, a sending forth of the self to the self, searching for one’s self… a kind of homecoming.”

The film’s seasonal structure seems very important, not just visually but also thematically with its acceptance of change. How did you go about shooting it and were there specific thing you were looking for connected to the seasons?

In a farming community, seasonal change and cyclical movements are very much part of life, in quite a visceral and practical way – much more so than measurements of time. So while filming, ritual, rhythm and cyclical movements were important to me and it was then a question of finding ways to translate those sensitivities to pictures and sounds. Most interesting for me were the changes in the quality of light and colours across a year, together with the very noticeable changes in sounds. Some of that cinematic syntax is subtle but some is quite simple, like snow, which is a very emphatic signifier for winter. So I knew that to mark out the seasons, it would be useful to have some scenes with snow. These qualities are sculpted into a narrative in the editing stage, and then post-production.

One of the images from the film that comes to mind is that of a tree. We see it at various points in different seasons. Is there some specific tie you have to this tree?

There are very few large deciduous trees on the exposed hillsides in that region, so I have always seen that tree as being like a familiar figure in the landscape. It is a dignified-looking tree and I attribute it with an aura of wisdom. Through trees we can also experience different seasons and light, so they can also become protagonists in the narrative of seasons. But this tree was more than that for me, it was a not merely a living thing in the landscape – instinctively, I felt it was alive and a character in my story. At the time, this was simply an instinct, but having read Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, I could reflect on that thought differently.

Your mother plays a big role in the film and seems to be the beginning and end of the exploration of the town and its inhabitants. What was her reaction like to the film, during the production and seeing the finished project?

My mother died a couple of months ago, so this question has a certain poignancy. The 22nd July would have been her 88th birthday, so I organised a screening of sleep furiously on that day at The Aberystwyth Arts Centre. It was a warming occasion and the auditorium was filled with past and present members of the Trefeurig community. Many of these people, who still live geographically close to each other, hadn’t seen each other for a long time. It seemed that once the school closed down, and there was no longer a potential meeting place, the sense of ‘community’ evaporated.

When I introduced the screening, I remembered an anecdote which I recounted to the audience. A few months after sleep furiously was released in cinemas, I went with my Mum for a day-trip to Carmarthen and she brought along Daisy the Jack Russell. I went off to buy something from the indoor market and when I came out and walked towards my Mum and Daisy, who were waiting for me, my thoughts were interrupted by a woman who rushed over:

“Is that the dog?” she asked several times.

“What dog?”

“You know… the dog from that film.”

“Sorry, I don’t know what you mean… you should ask the lady with the dog.”

So she did, and then stooped down to stroke Daisy.

Later I asked my Mother about the encounter and we laughed about how she had been a little bit irritated that Daisy had been recognised and not her. That is all to say she enjoyed not only the process of making the film with me, but also the acclaim it received. I think that we very much collaborated on the film and talked closely about it during the time I went back to live with her.

Music plays a key role at various points in the film, in particular with music by Aphex Twin. How did this collaboration come about, what were you looking for in terms of music, and what role would say this music ultimately played in the final film?

Yes, I would say something even broader: the musicality of sounds and images plays a key role. When Mario Battistel and I started to edit the material, we both were clear that if we used music, it should not be merely an accompaniment, nor should it be a ‘wallpaper’ to cover the cracks and smooth out the bumps of the edit. If music was going to be used, it had to become part of the voices of the characters. Very soon into the off-line edit we discovered that several tracks by Aphex Twin seemed to have an equivalence of texture between them, perhaps in part because both were created using an amalgam of analogue and digital processes. It was curious how these Aphex Twin tracks did not ‘fight’ with the synchronized sound but allowed the sounds of the environment to cut through. Some of these music tracks like ‘Penty Harmonium’, which became the ‘voice’ of the school, is very similar in sound to the harmonium played in the Chapel scene, so much so that is feels almost diegetic.

Richard was irritated by the way his music was edited, cut prematurely, or simply repeated several times. He commented quite fairly: “It would be like me saying to you OK, let’s release your film on Warp Films but I’m going to repeat a section four times, then I’m going to use another bit but cut it off before you get to see what happens…” I did try to re-edit according to some of Richard’s ensuing suggestions but could not make it work… In the end Richard agreed ‘to disagree’ and generously let the original music edit stand.

One of the most powerful moments in the film is a performance by a local Welsh choir. Was there some connection between you and this choir?

There was no particular connection between me and Côr (Choir) ABC, other than it was led by Angharad Fychan who lives in the Trefeurig Community. In the filming process, I was interested in watching Angharad conduct and lead the choir, but in the edit I became distracted by the sheer beauty of this performance of ‘Y Deryn Glas’ (‘The Blue Bird’). It suggested a quality of escape and other-worldliness and so I juxtaposed it with the only images I filmed during the production of sleep furiously, which look away from the landscape, to the sea. There is for that one moment in the film, a suggestion of a world beyond Trefeurig and the possibility of a new life.

It’s been ten years now since the premier of the film at Locarno Film Festival. Have you been back in recent years to the town, what has changed since sleep furiously was made, and have you seen any influence on the town caused by the making of the film?

First, I should say that there is no ‘real’ town. sleep furiously is a fictional construct: although it focuses on the parish of Trefeurig, I occasionally filmed as far as fifty miles away in order to piece together my imaginary space. The population of that fictional place is also, in part, a construction. For example: I discarded the ‘real’ teachers in the village school and replaced them with characters who I thought more likely to evoke the atmosphere I was looking for. I do go back to Aberystwyth and Trefeurig, and yes, it is a place which is changing: someone told me that nine of the people in the film have died since 2007, the school closed down, and there are no more ‘community’ meetings. John Jones, the Library Man, has retired… but the travelling library continues, with a new librarian.

It was clear at the recent screening of sleep furiously given in memory of my Mum, that the making of the film and its unexpected success had some kind of impact on the community. What that impact is, I don’t know.

Thanks to Robert Macfarlane

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today