SXSW 2011: SEPARADO! Review
It is the late 1800s: two hooded horseback riders square off in a race across the Welsh countryside. The incident concludes in both tragedy and suspicion, and, in part, incites the surviving rider to emigrate from Wales to Patagonia, Argentina, where, to this day, a Welsh community continues to thrive. Over a hundred years later, a red-cloaked guitarist uses a magical Power Ranger helmet to teleport to Argentina in search of the rider's descendents, the most elusive and sought after of which is Rene Griffiths, a folk singer who, in the 1970s, combined Welsh lyrics with a South American sound. So begins the sometimes silly, often surreal, but consistently endearing Separado! Need I mention that this is a documentary?
The Power Ranger is actually Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals (I suspect that his powers of teleportation have been exaggerated for the film) and the film is something of a travelogue depicting both Rhys' concert tour throughout Argentina as well as his adventures in uncovering the unique history of his ancestors' participation in the Welsh emigration to South America. Motivated by his obsession with the aforementioned Rene Griffiths, a distant relative whom he was first introduced to through a television broadcast as a child, the journey poignantly connects Rhys with his family roots, while introducing him to an assortment of eclectic characters from Argentina's music scene, including the memorable Tony Da Gattora, a rocker whose invented his own instrument (a fusion of percussion, guitar and electronic sounds).
Co-directing with Dylan Goch, the film behaves like a personal sketch-book for Rhys, partly documenting his experiences, partly providing an outlet for his creative energies. There are straightforward interview segments amidst what is a fairly conventional "road-movie" structure, but the film also fissures with little fictions and self-reflexive episodes. The Welsh emigration to Argentina is imagined as a musical number performed on the Welsh coastline to an audience of genuinely perplexed onlookers. Footage from a concert in Wales is passed off as part of the Argentianian tour, until Rhys himself sly clarifies its origin, admitting that he actually performed alone in his apartment that night. Towards the end of the film, Rhys gives a climactic concert... to a horse or two - Rhys isn't entirely sure if it wasn't just the same horse.
Coupled with the film's reflexive narration is a delirious array of split-screen editing. The screen is often a collage of imagery, shifting around and popping about to the beat of Rhys' music, occasionally utterly transforming the footage into a visualization of the score. The opening credits are also particularly inspired, invoking a faux-Grindhouse aesthetic, while also emphasizing the doodling digressive nature of the project. (I've embedded the opening titles below as they make a heck of a great trailer).
Now apparently Rhys had intended the film to feel a lot looser and more tangential in its approach, and that the quest for the folk-singer was actually a late addition to the film's structure encouraged by the film's backers who presumably wanted something a bit more conventional (here is the source, but be wary of slight spoilers). However while I'd be intrigued to see what was left out of the film, I have few complaints with the final product.
While the film's zany energy may have been what first ensnared my attention, what really moves Separado! along and keeps you invested is that contagious grin Rhys wears all the way through to the film's surprising conclusion. Simply watching Rhys having a good time will have you smiling along with him.