The tale of a visionary explorer who travelled the length of the Ohio and Missouri rivers to find a mythical tribe of Welsh-speaking Indians in the late 1700s was told on the big screen in similar exploratory style at Mareel on Thursday night.
Afterwards film-maker and musician Gruff Rhys was on hand to answer questions about his multi-layered and at times psychedelic road-trip through the American Interior. The firlm was shown as part of Mareel’s annual Screenplay festival.
It is only one-part of a multi-media creation– accompanied by a book, music album and mobile app of the same title. It is basically a documentary of Rhys’s part power-point presentation, part music, part comedy tour through the States to retrace the steps of John Evans’s long voyage.
Starting from his home in north Wales, American Interior charts the quests of both Rhys and his distant ancestor Evans on their two different missions separated by two-centuries.
Evans was orphaned at a young age and fell under the influence of Celtic poet and antiquarian Iolo Morganwg, who championed the cause of the Welsh language at a time of cultural and linguistic oppression. The two hatched a scheme to find the descendants of legendary Welsh prince Madog, who had supposedly sailed to America hundreds of years before Columbus. If Evans was successful, it could trigger a full-scale migration where the oppressed Welsh could sail west to live with their cousins.
Arriving in Baltimore, Evans made his way via the Ohio River to St Louis where he was jailed by the Spanish, who at the time were the self-appointed owners of everything west of the Mississippi. Luckily Evans was able to continue his expedition as second in command of a Spanish expedition to chart the upper reaches of the Missouri and expel British invaders from the north.
Evans and his men were faced with a tough voyage upriver, at times chased by hostile tribes. The Welshman’s “golden tongue” was as important as his exploratory skills in navigating the river.
Once reaching the Mandan, identified as the most likely descendents of Madog, Evans quickly realised that there were no Welsh speakers in North America. It must have been a crushing blow, but Evans was at least able to provide his employers with an incredibly detailed map of the upper Missouri, which proved invaluable for the famous Lewis and Clark expedition.
Sailing downriver to New Orleans, Evans died there at the age of 29.
Rhys on his travels is, appropriately for the frontman of the Super Furry Animals, often clad in a toy wolf hat and accompanied by a puppet of John Evans. He picked up material for his shows as they progressed. At times his American audiences seemed non-plussed, but wherever in the US he played a smattering of Welsh speakers were on hand.
Once Rhys’s own journey reached the Mandan reservation, he met one of the few native Mandan speakers left, an 82 year-old who like Rhys had been brought up speaking his own native language before learning English at school. He could still remember the taste of the soap they used to wash his mouth out with when he lapsed into Mandan.
Identity and the importance of language as part of it was one of the more serious themes of the film. One audience member made the point after the film that Shetland, Wales and the Mandan all faced a similar battle to preserve their language. Another idea was that a journey may yet yield different results even if its original objectives have not been fulfilled.
On the final leg of his tour, Rhys travels to New Orleans where his quest to find Evans’s grave meets with suitably ambiguous result – it may be under an old oak tree at the edge of the historic cemetery where they filmed Easy Rider – his whacky guide informs him.
Whatever you take from it American Interior is a hugely enjoyable experience that combines the stunning American landscape with Rhys’s own pleasing musicianship while telling a little known but incredible story through a visual account of his own tour.
A review of Gruff Rhys’s concert that followed the showing of American Interior will follow in next week’s Shetland Times.