American Interior: SXSW Review

American Interior Film - P 2014
Mark James

American Interior Film - P 2014

Dances with puppets.

This playful, poetic, surreal documentary follows musician Gruff Rhys across America in the footsteps of a fabled Welsh explorer.

Back in 2010, the Welsh duo of cult musician Gruff Rhys and filmmaker Dylan Goch collaborated on a surreal non-fiction road movie called Separado! about the 19th century diaspora of Welsh emigrants to Patagonia. While not quite a sequel, American Interior feels like a sister film, with Rhys again embarking on a musical journey across a vast landscape. This time the backdrop is the U.S. heartland and the inspiration is the 18th century Welsh explorer John Evans, who the singer claims -- with perhaps a knowing wink to the audience -- as a distant relative.

Made to accompany a studio album, book and app of the same name, American Interior is a more polished and substantial work than Separado! Mostly shot in ravishing digital monochrome, with artful splashes of color throughout, its tone is playful but more scholarly and less gimmicky than its predecessor, though both might be said to belong to the rarefied subgenre of magical-realist documentary. After its world premiere at South by Southwest, the film should grab more festival play before hitting U.K. theaters in May. Partly backed by the Welsh TV channel S4C, it seems assured of small-screen afterlife, offering an unorthodox slant on Native American history that could boost its U.S. audience appeal.

STORY: Austin Kleon Asks 'Is SXSW Over?' During Keynote Address

In keeping with his well-respected global reputation as a solo artist, serial collaborator and singer with the Super Furry Animals, Rhys proves an engaging and agreeably deadpan comedian on camera, even if his flinty Celtic vowels may prove a little broad for some overseas ears. Helpfully, the filmmakers provide subtitles when he speaks Welsh, his native tongue. His recording career has always been bilingual, but he confines himself to English during the musical interludes here, which are mostly lightly psychedelic folk-pop ballads with occasional noisy assistance from Kliph Scurlock, drummer with Oklahoma alt-rockers The Flaming Lips.

John Evans sailed across the Atlantic in 1792, drawn by fanciful folklore in his native Wales about Madoc, a 12th century explorer said to have arrived in America three centuries before Columbus, leaving behind a tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. Landing at Baltimore, Evans began a colorful seven-year odyssey that involved hunting bison with the Omaha tribe, a spell behind bars for suspected espionage, defection to the Spanish-occupied western territories, dueling with would-be assassins from British-ruled Canada and charting the Missouri river with a map that Thomas Jefferson would later pass on to Lewis and Clark for their pioneering journey westward. 

Beginning at Yale University, where Evans' original map is now stored, Rhys retraces his alleged ancestor's journey with a series of amusingly offbeat multimedia shows that are part educational lecture, part comedy act and part musical performance. With tongue only partly in cheek, he calls the trip an "investigative concert tour". Between shows he meets scholars, fellow musicians, schoolchildren, nature-loving hippie dropouts and Native American tribe members. His constant companion is a "felt avatar" of Evans, a three-foot-high puppet in the Sesame Street mold, which underscores the quirky humor behind his semi-serious mission.

But for all its self-conscious and occasionally over-cutesy whimsy, American Interior has a melancholy political subtext, which sharpens in the latter scenes when Rhys visits the Mandan tribe in deep-frozen North Dakota. Evans spent the winter of 1796-7 with the Mandan, who ran a highly sophisticated trading post between the European colonial powers. Disappointingly, they turned out not to be the mythical Welsh-speaking tribe that he was hoping to locate.

Over the next two centuries, the tribe's language and culture declined catastrophically, as Rhys discovers when he meets the last remaining fluent Mandan speaker, 82-year-old Edwin Benson. Parallels with Wales, another minority nation scarred by centuries of Anglophone linguistic and political hegemony, are starkly obvious. But Rhys is forced to concede that Evans himself left a troubled legacy, rebelling against English colonialism yet ultimately aiding the European imperial project that led to Native American genocide.

John Evans never returned to Wales, dying of a fever in New Orleans at the age of 29. Rhys ends his musical pilgrimage by staging a Louisiana-style jazz funeral for his long-lost countryman in the Welsh hills of his birth. This provides the warm, imaginative, celebratory climax to a hugely charming and visually gorgeous film. American Interior comes not to bury Evans but to praise his spirit of heroically romantic myth-making, fighting for the big dreams of small nations.

Production company: ie ie Productions

Producer: Catryn Ramasut

Directors: Dylan Goch, Gruff Rhys

Cast: Gruff Rhys, Cory Spotted Bear, Boris Unwin, Kliph Scurlock

Cinematographer: Ryan Owen Eddleston

Editor: Dylan Goch

Music: Gruff Rhys

Sales company: ie ie Productions

Rating TBC, 90 minutes