Directed By Gruff Rhys
American Interior is Gruff Rhys‘s second documentary. Like Separado (2010) it’s a quest to find a long lost relative. However, 2010’s adventure saw the lead singer and guitarist of the Super Furry Animals (SFA) looking for a long lost Patagonian uncle – musician Renee Griffith. American Interior is the uncovering and retracing of a journey across America by a very distant relative – the explorer John Evans – who upped sticks from his Welsh valley cottage in 1792 in search of a lost tribe of native Americans who spoke Welsh and were believed to be the descendents of the ancient Welsh Prince Madoc. He is believed to have discovered America in 1170.
Shot in black and white with flashes of colour like the orange glow of a cigarette end, Gruff fills in the blanks through the local historians and people he meets along the route of the River Missouri to create a fairly unique narrative about a very young USA – Bill of Rights (comprising the first ten amendments to the Constitution) was signed off in 1791 and half the country was still under Spanish rule. His search for answers is through what he calls an Investigative Concert Tour where he illustrates his knowledge of John Evans to date through a slide show and partly formed songs that respond to experiences of the journey thus far.
Gruff is a sincere narrator of the story. His mellifluous Welsh accent lends the film the tone of a reliable witness and keen enthusiast for all that he finds out. He’s undoubtedly the star of the show, but he never lets himself get in the way of the real story that is unfurling. Therefore, it’s easy to share in his joy at what he is able to discover and the wonderment he is unable to hide at the audacity of this adventurous Welshman who was making his mark in places most white men at the time feared to tread.
Despite heading way out west along the Missouri, Gruff’s odyssey ends far, far South searching for John Evans gravestone in New Orleans – where he died aged just 29.
It transpires that a legacy of his journey was the maps he made of his journey. One commentator in the film says they could be said to have helped formulate the USA as we know it and accelerated the downfall of the Native American tribes he befriended. It’s a tragic irony not lost on Gruff. A subtext to the American Interior is a heartfelt plea to allow minority languages, like Welsh, to thrive and survive the rigours of modernity.
It’s fitting that this documentary is released in the week of the Scotland independence referendum because John Evans story is set during a time when revolution was very much in the air. The English were forbidding Welsh being spoken, much like the Americans were forbidding Native American’s from their language. In fact early on in Gruff’s investigation we discover that John Evans real name was: “Ieuan T ab IFan”, but at the time the Church of England forced the Welsh to adopt English names.
On the one hand Gruff went out to America to verify facts, but John Evans mission and journey is such a muddle of truth, fantasy and myth. Gruff himself recognises this when he accepts: “Sometimes the only way to verify [facts] is to go somewhere and admire the distances they travelled.” When you see how far John Evans got, largely alone and under his own steam, you will also admire the feat as much as the hapless search for a long lost tribe of Welsh speaking Native Americans.
‘American Interior’ is out on DVD from Monday 15th September 2014
Originally published at http://www.britflicks.com/review.aspx?filmid=5709