Monday, 16 August 2010
'Separado!' review: a cultural oddity in an experimental style...
Gruff Rhys, the man behind the Super Furry Animals, has co-directed, written and starred in a documentary so small that, at the time of writing, it is still "awaiting 5 votes" on the IMDB. That film is 'Separado!', a quirky little movie, less than an hour and a half long, which charts Rhys' journey from Wales to Patagonia (South Argentina) in search of his distant relatives who joined many hundreds of Welsh in emigrating to that part of the world in the late 19th century. On his journey, through Brazil as well as Argentina, Rhys traces the legacy of his Welsh ancestors and looks at the interesting musical hybrid between Latin and traditional Welsh music which can still be heard in parts of South America today.
It all started when Rhys saw an Argentinian gaucho singer named René Griffiths singing in Welsh on BBC Wales as a child. After finding that they were in fact related, the musician became interested in tracking down the man himself. On his journey to find René Griffiths, Rhys meets many other distant relatives and encounters a whole range of other musical performers, including a Brazilian musician who has invented his own instrument - a cross between a guitar and a drum machine. He also puts on several low-key concerts and looks a little bit at the cultural, historical and economic causes and effects of this strange chapter in Welsh history (which apparently played a key role in Argentinian history too - allowing the government to successfully claim the disputed South from neighbouring Chile).
On this trip we see that many Patagonian places have Welsh names and that many still speak the language. Rhys even manages to meet an old man who is closely and directly descended from the original Welsh settlers (who is also proudly in possession of the first organ brought to Argentina by these pioneers). Impressively, he does all of this speaking three languages over the course of the film, speaking Welsh, English and having a decent command of conversational Spanish to boot.
All of this is shown in a really surreal and unconventional way too, with Rhys teleporting himself between locations after donning a huge Power Ranger helmet, and with many bizarre and trippy musical interludes. In fact the film is as much about making music as it is about anything else. There is really nothing to criticise here. The film is barely long enough to get boring. The history is fascinating in itself and seeing the modern Welsh communities of Patagonia (and hearing their music) is an intriguing cultural oddity. Rhys comes across very well too, and spending time in his company is hardly a chore, even for someone who isn't a fan of his music, such as I (not because it's bad, but because I am not familiar with it).
Perhaps the movie could put many off with its unconventional and experimental form, but even then the chance to see this South American road trip is too good to miss. It also has a serious point, underneath all the quirky-ness, about how important it is to hold onto cultural identity - a fact which is perhaps more pressing today for Welsh-speakers than it was in the 1860s. There is also the brutal irony (not lost on the filmmakers), that in escaping persecution from the British, like many other colonials, the Welsh played a part in the persecution of another native people (in this case the Tehuelche, who were removed by the Argentine government now in control of the region). If you can find it playing and have even a minimal interest in any of the above, then there is probably something for you in 'Separado!'.
'Separado!' is so small it hasn't even been rated by the BBFC. But it can be found playing one-off shows at various cinemas, including many Picturehouses.