Gruff Rhys on Penguins, Patagonia and Folk Rock
Gruff Rhys is the lead singer of Welsh indie band Super Furry Animals. ‘Separado!’ is his debut film feature, a rambling documentary travelogue of the 40 year old’s time spent tracking down enigmatic folk troubadour René Griffiths in Welsh-speaking Patagonia.
‘Yeah, it was going to be a photo story and somewhere along the way it turned into a film. We didn’t know how to make a film and we had no money, so it took us a while to work out what to do.’
Isn’t the Welsh Film Board involved?
‘They came in after we shot it. They saved our ass, as it were. We had £15,000 from a benevolent record company and two video cameras, so we shot the film for that amount. And then a penguin destroyed one of the cameras on the second day of filming. So then we had one video camera.’
How did a penguin destroy a camera?
‘We left it on a tripod just filming shots of penguins. We weren’t looking after it properly and we watched in horror as this penguin attacked the camera. He punched it to the floor with his wing. We’ve still got the shots. It’s the last thing that was captured.’
Were you inspired by any presenters of travelogues on TV?
‘Yeah, but the difference is that these people are some kind of authority on what they’re doing, whereas with this one, you’re following a delirious musician who doesn’t know anything about wildlife. We just wanted to project the newness of the situation and the fact that we felt pretty displaced. And not necessarily comfortable.’
You look at ease on camera.
‘For a lot of it I was just spending time with Welsh speakers, so you felt like you were in a relative’s house. We were interviewing people in Welsh-speaking Patagonia and people in Wales and they had the same free calendars you get from takeaways on the wall.’
Are you still in contact with people you met on the trip?
‘Yes, I made everyone aware of what I’ve done with the footage. I didn’t want to exploit anyone or make them feel uncomfortable. That was a new thing for us: the crazy responsibility you have when capturing people on film and trying not to screw them over.’
The film is based around your search for folk singer René Griffiths…
‘Yes, he’s an incredibly charismatic man and I was really taken by all his early Welsh-language EPs as a child. One thing we regret in the film is not subtitling all of his lyrics. Right at the end of the film, he sings a song called “It’s Raining Beer” and it’s an amazing party song.’
In the film you appear very passionate about preserving your culture, learning about it and observing how it has spread across the world.
‘Culture is like an ecosystem: if one thing collapses, it causes a whole world of problems. So it’s maybe not about my culture necessarily. I’d be happy to be anything. A Martian even. It’s just a real shame when people aren’t allowed to practise being who they think they are. I sing in Welsh because it’s natural for me to sing in Welsh, but when I’m songwriting, I don’t do it to make a political statement: it’s very personal. Sometimes, people turn up to a Super Furry Animals gig and want us to sing Max Boyce songs. That’s the downside of being associated too strongly with a particular place.’
Were there any problems or hiccups along the way?
‘We had a stuntman in the film and in the beginning he has to fall off a horse. In order to do so, I had to give him my life savings – which wasn’t a lot – in cash, in a carrier bag, because we couldn’t afford the insurance. He was fine, so I lost all the money.’
Read our review of ‘Separado!’
Author: Interview: David Jenkins
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