BLOG Naomi Garnault

NWR Issue 105

American Interior in Welsh

On Sunday night, 14 September, S4C premiered the brilliant Welsh-language documentary I Grombil Cyfandir Pell: American Interior (Into the Bowels of a Far Continent) by musician Gruff Rhys. The documentary is perplexing to say the least, it’s BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ meets LCD. The Super Furry Animals front-man retraces the steps of the original map-maker of the road less travelled, his ancestor John Evans. Originally a farm hand in Snowdonia, Evans left his home forever in search of a Welsh speaking tribe in America. In who else’s lineage are you likely to find a man that survived imprisonment, escaped assassination, wrestled water beasts, defected to the Spanish, created maps of the Missouri River that would later guide the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition and all the while desperately asked every tribe he came across, ‘Da chi’n siarad Cymraeg?’ (Do you speak Welsh?)

John Evans is not the first colourful character to fall from Gruff Rhys’ family tree and into the public eye. His 2010 documentary Seperado! similarly depicts the wild adventures of a distant relative who settled in Patagonia. Both stories are orientated at the frontier of exploration and experimentation, hinting towards the source to Gruff Rhys’ approach to music.

There are currently five mediums in which to explore Rhys’ take on John Evans’ story: through an app, a novel {reviewed in New Welsh Review’s winter edition}, an album, Gruff Rhys’ live shows and of course the documentary film, premiering in English on general release this summer, and in Welsh on S4C. Initially this overload of resources seems a tad suspicious, perhaps a way of maximising profits from one story? On balance, not, however: this truly is an incredible story that deserves further exploration. The abundant outlets of John Evans’ story is testament to Gruff Rhys’ immense creativity and passion. Watching his film will leave you eager to find another piece of the John Evans puzzle. You’ll soon be yearning to read the novel, kicking yourself for nearly missing out on Gruff Rhys’ live shows (his tour within the UK runs up until the 21 September) and humming along to his daydream-inducing songs for weeks.

Amongst the evocative footage of the vast American landscape, the documentary cuts to Gruff Rhys’ live shows, in which he charmingly narrates John Evans’ adventure by way of some smooth psychedelic songs and a comically humble power-point presentation. Though there are certainly dark moments to be found in Johns Evans’ story the documentary is laced with comedy, laying bare the absurdity of the situation John Evans threw himself into. Accompanying Gruff Rhys through his journey in America is a puppet avatar of John Evans himself. The puppet’s face is cool and pensive, unfazed by his surroundings, perhaps because he has already completed this journey two centuries previously.

The host of interesting characters that guide Gruff through his ‘Investigative Tour’, the down-to earth comedy, and beautiful camera work all create a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating documentary. The film captures the absurd yet heroic ambitions of a Welsh farm labourer who chased a myth, only to end up being enshrined in myth himself.

Indeed there is still much mystery surrounding the real John Evans. The puppet is, in a way, an accurate measure of how close we can come to truly knowing our ancestors. And so the collaborative use of predominantly black and white film footage and new age special effects seems fitting. It centres us into a documentary that films not just America as it is now, and as it was, but the land in which both past and present are allowed, briefly, to cross over: the land of myth. The entire project poignantly demonstrates how the stories of our ancestors imbue much of what we do, and how their sense of curiosity and imagination can spark our own if we choose to open ourselves up to the adventure.

Naomi Garnault blogs and reviews for New Welsh Review.




       


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