Please note - film only review
It was Bruce Chatwin's book "In Patagonia" that really got me interested in the story of the Welsh immigrants to South America. In the nineteenth century many Welshmen and their families left the motherland bound for South America The government of Argentina offered immigrants land as part of a plan designed to increase the population in areas of the country outside Buenos Aires. Michael Jones, a Welsh nationalist non-conformist preacher enthused about the plan; he had previously been in the United States where, he said, the Welsh had been among the most successful immigrants in terms of integration, but he favoured the Argentine plan because he saw that the Welsh settlers would be able to escape English influence. Today their descendants are essentially fully assimilated but there are still communities in Patagonia, Argentina where Welsh is spoken and Welsh traditions are still observed.
When I read about Gruff Rhys's film "Separado!" I was eager to see it. The affable front man of Welsh indie band The Super Furry Animals learned as a child about the connection between Wales and Patagonia; in fact it was reinforced for him when a distant relative enjoyed minor success singing Welsh ballads while dressed as a gaucho in the 1970s. Rhys firmly believes that this is how his own passion for music was ingited. Banking on the current vogue for so-called celebs to trace their family histories, Rhys embarks upon a mission to find Rene Griffiths, finding time in the process, to play a small tour of South America. Part travelogue, part family history, "Separado!" a surprising film that turned out to be much better than I expected.
I've never really been much of a fan of the Super Furry Animals so I was a bit apprehensive as I the cinema lights faded. After ten minutes I was wondering whether this might be the first time in my thirty-eight years that I might walk out of a cinema before the end of the movie. The Super Furry Animals were always a bit off the wall, but never in a way that endeared me to them. When a few minutes in a bizarre Welsh girl group start skipping through woodland, wailing like Banshees - something that reminded me of low budget 1970s horror flicks - I started to think about what we could have for dinner that evening. I found the first fifteen minutes of the movie rather baffling; Rhys simply tries too hard to be offbeat and arty and the absurdity of this is reinforced when, later on, the dramatic backdrop of his Patagonian road trip makes any other aspects of the film pale in comparison. I'm pretty sure that Rhys made his way to South America by means of an aeroplane, but in the film, he dons a magic poncho and cherry red motorcycle helmet and teleports there. This scarcely caused my mouth to turn upwards the first time but after a few appearances I was thoroughly unimpressed.
In the first section of the film Gruff interviews various family members about their memories of Uncle Rene. The interviews are carried out mainly in Welsh with subtitles, which prove to be about the worst subtitles I have ever had the misfortune to see; ungrammatical, poorly spelled and badly presented, I found them really distracting as they took my attention from what was actually being said. Having received only the bare bones of the story, Gruff goes to Patagonia to meet up with some distant family members to continue his search.
There he visits a succession of tiny Welsh speaking communities where he is introduced a whole branch of his family he didn't even know existed, among them a cousin, Cecilia, with whom he makes a road trip through the desert on the trail of Rene, who always seems to be one step ahead of them. Gruff plays a series of concerts, at first in the larger cities before he heads into rural Patagonia, then low key affairs in community halls in tiny Welsh villages. In the cities Gruff teams up with a variety of off beat local musicians - the eccentric Tony da Gattora, inventor of a musical instrument called the Gattor is a case in point - to the delight of hip urban music fans, while in the countryside, a mixed audience isn't quite sure how to react to Rhys's unconventional music, especially when he dons that helmet again. As I've already said I'm not a fan of the Super Furry Animals and the music the Gruff plays in the film isn't going to make me reappraise his oeuvre, although there are a few numbers that work brilliantly in the driving scenes and really complement the landscape.
It's a shame that so much is made of the more whacky aspects of the movie. The effects are cheap and they look cheap; that doesn't bother me, it;s just that the when we're presented with nothing more compliacted than miles of magnificent landscapes, the effects look even more tawdry and unnecessary. I don't feel I can comment on the merits or otherwise of director Dylan Goch because I didn't get the feeling that there was anyone other than Rhys himself steering this one along.
Essentially this is a film about Gruff Jones looking for Rene Griffiths but I did feel I learned a lot about the Welsh migrants and how they fared when they arrived in Patagonia. There are interesting contributions from local historians which provide a potted account of the experience of the Welsh settlers in Patagonia: how they formed useful alliances with native peoples, how they gradually became assimilated, and so on. Rhys comes across as genuinely interested in the social and political history of his ancestors and is an excellent guide. I really liked the way that the background to the story was supplied equally by experts and Rhys's family members, this makes the film seem more personal and less documentary-like. The hunt for Rene Griffith's keeps the film moving and allows for a natural conclusion which might otherwise have been difficult to reach.
"Separado!" is certainly not a mainstream film but it does work on a number of levels which should at least make it of interest to a variety of viewers. Gruff Rhys makes an extremely affable guide who presents here an intimate and enthralling snapshot of a community that we don't hear much about these days, but which is a story that really deserves to be heard. The film is touching without resorting to sentimentality, informative without becoming bogged down in detail. Admittedly it is slightly too long, a fault that could easily have been sorted with some bold editing of the unnecessarily arty parts. Overall, though, I really enjoyed this film, and would recommend it to any fans of independent films looking for something a little different. Undoubtedly one of the best low budget movies of the year!
Running time: 84 minutes
Director: Dylan Goch