for this week’s Tribune: SLEEP FURIOUSLY review; Crossing Europe (Linz) film-festival report (2/2)
sleep furiously [7/10]
documentary with Pip Koppel, John Jones
Director : Gideon Koppel
GIDEON Koppel's disarming debut sleep furiously – note the all-minuscule orthography – won't be the best new UK release of 2009, but it's perhaps the most heartening. How brave of distributors New Wave Films (who last year brought us Joanna Hogg's superb Unrelated) to pick up such a seemingly uncommercial project and present it to the public in such a tough economic climate, even if the film only pops up on a bare handful of screens across the country.* In an ideal world, such boldness would yield rich reward – and there'd be a receptive climate for reflectively quiet, intensely personal, experimentally poetic documentaries such as this.
As it is, such fare is generally restricted to film-festivals – such as Edinburgh, where sleep furiously premiered to favourable notices last June. Sight and Sound hailed Koppel, a Liverpool-born, Slade-educated artist who teaches in London and Paris, as "the unfussiest film-maker since Bresson," describing his film as "quite simply, a masterpiece." For veteran British director Alex Cox, this chronicle of ordinary lives in and around the community of Trefeurig in western Wales, where Koppel grew up and where his mother Pip (one of the film's two main "protagonists," and a delightfully wry and spry screen-presence) resides, is "the least anthropomorphic film I've ever seen."
Cox is presumably unfamiliar with the animal magic of young Hungarian director Palfi Gyorgy's Hukkle from 2002, while in comparison with the American avant-garde maestro James Benning (13 Lakes; Ten Skies), Koppel is fussiness itself. Nevertheless, Koppel's achievement here is considerable – and while it's too early to describe him as a "British Benning" or heir to Patrick Keiller (Robinson in Space), there's certainly some ground for cautious optimism in those directions. He's crafted a sensitive and beautifully-composed work, one which respects and mimics the unhurried rhythms of rural life, and which is studded with breathtaking grace-notes and truly remarkable shots – including a particularly stunning image of sheep moving across a hillside which runs for several minutes but which most viewers, one suspects, could happily endure for considerably longer.
This is one of several sequences which is cut frustratingly short – in that specific case, the director has admitted, because he inadvertently ran out of film. Elsewhere, however, editor Mario Battistel is a little too energetic with his scissors, resulting in an occasional abruptness that disrupts the flow of a picture which, as the BBFC puts it in their official classification explanation, "contains no material likely to offend or harm" and so was given a 'U' certificate ("the very mild language in the film includes the terms 'God' and 'blimey,'" counsels their website.) 'U' originally was short for 'universal', of course, and sleep furiously, though not without its minor pretensions – including that title (a reference to a linguistic jeu d'esprit by Noam Chomsky) and the use of various old tracks by Aphex Twin on the soundtrack – is a film of such observant charm that everyone should at least give it a go. If and when they get the chance.
* one of these is the Curzon Soho, where Gideon Koppel will be on hand for a Q&A after the 6.30 screening on Friday 29th May.
sleep furiously : [7/10] : UK 2008 : Gideon KOPPEL : 94m (BBFC) : seen 19th June 2008, CineWorld cinema, Edinburgh (public show – paid £6.40) – Edinburgh International Film Festival : original review
LINZ IS LAUNCH-PAD TO EXPLORE NEW WORLDS OF LABOUR
Part two of our report from the Crossing Europe Film Festival in Linz, Austria (April 20-26) focusses on the 'Working Worlds' strand, showcasing documentaries on labour-related themes. Part one of the report is HERE.
We first present an interview with the section's co-founder and co-programmer, Dominik Kamalzadeh – film-critic for Vienna's leading left-of-centre broadsheet, Der Standard.
NY : How did Working Worlds start?
DK : In the beginning it was the idea of two of my friends – Michael Loebenstein and Dieter Pichler – and myself. Together we founded the organisation 'Kinoreal' with the idea of bringing documentaries back into cinemas. As we were particularly interested in topical work-related issues, we proposed this idea to Christine Dollhofer for the first edition of her festival, Crossing Europe, in Linz. At first we thought of presenting newer and older films, perhaps even fictional features – but after a little research it was clear that there are enough documentaries made in Europe each year to fill the kind of programme we wanted to put on.
Looking back at the various editions of Working Worlds, which films in particular are you pleased to have programmed and why?
I like the ones which are formally inventive. Gerhard Friedl's Did Wolff von Amerongen Commit Bankruptcy Offences? (Hat Wolff von Amerongen Konkursdelikte begangen?, 2005) is one of my favourites because of its fundamental scepticism about the representation of a certain history of economics. This is and was a crucial point in many programmes: the limits of documentaries which focus on work (or structures of work) which are vanishing.
How important are cinema-documentaries to an understanding of the current economic turmoil?
I don't think cinema can really provide answers to the turmoil. but it is able show certain contexts – structural, existential – that help to make very abstract processes more tangible. Claire Denis once said that you cannot fight the stock exchange because it's too abstract. I don't agree totally with that. I think one has to imagine new ways of mapping an economic world – and every year there seem to be one or two films which try out something new.
Are there any particular filmmakers in Europe who are consistently addressing the kind of economic and social issues raised by Working Worlds?
Harun Farocki did a lot of his films on work and capitalist methodology. The German documentarian Thomas Heise's work is another consistent example. But the majority seem to switch after one or two films to other subects.
How do you see Working Worlds developing?
What would be extremely interesting is a in-depth-retrospective which could also focus on historic examples – going back to things like [Georges Franju's abbatoir classic] The Blood of the Beasts (Le sang des betes, 1949). At Crossing Europe we always try to keep refocussing a bit – next year we're thinking about a programme which looks at Europe as a kind of "heaven", as seen from an exterior perspective – with films from places like north Africa. That's to me a fascinating new angle.
THE 2009 PROGRAMME
A pair of fine new documentaries from Germany proved the highlights of the fifth Working Worlds survey, each of them looking towards the east for inspiration. In the case of Hans-Christian Schmid's The Wondrous World of Laundry (Die wundersame Welt der Waschkraft), this was a case of peeking just a couple of miles over the border into neighbouring Poland – the town of Widuchowa, to be precise, location of a German-owned laundry which services "most of Berlin's four-star hotels."
Rather than sheets and machinery, Schmid's focus is on the women – and they are nearly all women – who work at the facility, going behind the closed doors of their homes and allowing them to tell their own stories. Schmid's excellent drama Requiem (2006) showed how small-town family pressures can, under certain circumstances, prove suffocating and repressive – but here the family is shown as an invaluable support to the workers.
The down-side is that the women's domestic responsibilities eat into time that might otherwise be dedicated to union activities – as we see during a meeting of the plant's Solidarity representatives, where there's only a single female present. An implicit indictment of Poland's haphazard recent governments, the documentary is also an examination of the country's possible futures – at a crucial historical moment when, thanks to the enlargement of the Schengen area, and as the residents wryly note, "the border is coming to us!"
The good folks of Widuchowa evidently have their problems (to the extent that one of them tries her luck potting flowers in Lincolnshire!) but housing is some way down that list. This is in direct contrast to the St Petersburg residents we get to meet in Christiane Buchner's cumbersomely-titled but pleasingly acerbic pereSTROIKA – reCONSTRUCTION of a flat (pereSTROIKA – umBAU einer wohnung). In the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet Union, countless city-centre apartments were divided into "communal flats", with a family in each (fairly spacious) room and shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. Now most of these flats are being recombined into single units of property and flogged on the real-estate market – leading to all manner of nightmarish bureaucratic complexities and protracted financial wranglings as each set of residents seeks to obtain maximum advantage in terms of money and (even more valuable) floor-space.
As an indictment of governmental misrule and neglect, pereSTROIKA is arguably even grimmer and darker than the Laundry movie – but Buchner's light touch and her eye and ear for quirky details ensures that the bitter medicine goes down surprisingly easily. While primarily a glimpse into the methods employed at a small-time Russian estate-agency, pereSTROIKA is also an entertaining and informative snapshot of the country as a whole as it discovers the decidedly mixed blessings of un-reconstructed capitalism.
19th May, 2009
written for the 27th May edition of Tribune magazine
pereSTROIKA – reCONSTRUCTION of a flat : [7/10] : pereSTROIKA – umBAU einer wohnung : Germany 2009 (copyright-dated 2008) : Christiane BüCHNER : 85m (timed)
THE WONDROUS WORLD OF LAUNDRY : [7/10] : Die wundersame Welt der Waschkraft :Germany 2009 : Hans-Christian SCHMID: 92m (timed)
also seen in the 'Working Worlds' section (comment upcoming)
DEVIL HIDES IN DOUBT : [6/10] : Sollbruchstelle : Germany 2008 : Eva STOTZ : 61m (timed)
HOW TO LIVE IN THE F.R.G. : [6/10] : Leben/BRD : West Germany 1990 (copyright-dated 1989) : Harun FAROCKI : 79m