With St. David’s Day on the horizon, Quench celebrates the films that perfectly capture the fascinating history, vibrant culture and unique spirit of Wales.
Hedd Wyn by Anna Whitfield
Paul Turner’s 1992 film Hedd Wyn is based on the poet of the same name, who posthumously won the most prestigious Welsh poetry award, the Eisteddfod’s Chair of the Bard.
The Eisteddfod is a Welsh music and creative arts festival, in which people perform and send in their work for it to be judged. The Chairing of the Bard is one of the most important traditions at the Eisteddfod, and is won by poets who write in a Welsh form of poetry known as ‘cynghanedd’.
In 1917, Hedd Wyn, born Ellis Evans, was awarded the chair for his ode ‘The Hero’. As the trumpets blew three times to announce the winner, it was revealed that he had been killed in the battles of World War I. The chair was then draped in black and became the ‘Cadair Du’ (or the ‘Black Chair’), and delivered to his family. The film tells Evans’ story from his days of writing poetry for local poetry festivals under the pseudonym of ‘Hedd Wyn’, ironically meaning ‘blessed peace’. Hedd Wyn refuses to enlist as he does not believe in murder, but is ultimately forced into fighting due to being the eldest son and fears for his ten younger siblings’ lives.
The story of Hedd Wyn is so culturally important to Welsh history and identity, as it presents – which many films fail to do – the pain of Welsh families during the war, and the loss which the entirety of the United Kingdom suffered. It also includes a score which is dominated by Welsh compositions, and features clips from the Eisteddfod itself. Through these inclusions, the film reinforces how crucial the Eisteddfod and Welsh poetry is for the country and its rich history. Hedd Wyn was a film which was important to my identity, as it perfectly portrays the quaint Welsh agricultural lifestyle and successfully utilises its Welsh directors and producers to give a realistic portrayal of the country. It was met with an impressive reception, becoming the first Welsh film to be nominated for an Academy Award, and will always be seen as a crucial moment for Welsh cinema.
Submarine by Jack Vavasour
Boasting a strong British cast, led by Welshman Craig Roberts, and directed by the supremely talented Richard Ayoade, Submarine can be considered as one of the greatest British films of recent times.
The beautifully crafted film was predominantly filmed in Swansea and is not only accurate in its encapsulation of Welsh life, but also successfully captures the angst of one’s teenage years.
Roberts gives a well-rounded performance as the socially awkward, and slightly creepy, Oliver Tate. Narrating throughout, his dull monotone voice draws the viewer in as it gives an insight into the peculiar and quirky life that he lives. Oliver, like many teens appears to drift through life, uncertain of what he is doing, and the film revolves around his infatuation with Jordana, portrayed by Yasmin Paige. Ayoade intelligently pits Oliver’s new teenage romance against the struggling marriage that his parents are in; Oliver and Jordana are young and rebellious, whilst Oliver’s parents are bored and set in their ways.
Perhaps the most perfect aspect of this film is its soundtrack, which was specially written by Arctic Monkeys frontman, Alex Turner. Turner suitably finds the tone for a potentially difficult film, with slow hypnotic songs perfectly reflecting the mood and speed of the film and its awkward characters. The album alone is well worth a listen.
Submarine’s cast – with all due respect – are far from the ultra-glamorous and physically impressive actors that occupy Hollywood blockbusters. Rather, they are far blander in their appearance, with Oliver’s dark eyes and slender frame simultaneously conveying both intensity and vulnerability, whilst Jordana’s blunt bob and fringe help her to retain some degree of mystery. This only adds to the film’s overwhelming sense of realism – whilst we look in other films for heroes, here the audience is provided with a window through which we can explore the bizarre private life of an anxious teen.
Submarine is a film that, on so many levels, could appear dull and not worth watching. However, due to inspired direction by Ayoade and some astonishing visual shots, this is a work that no-one who truly loves film will regret seeing. It perfectly provides an insight into the realities (even if sometimes exaggerated) of living as a teen in Wales, and the trials and tribulations one will face whilst growing up. With Submarine, Ayoade has created a masterpiece, both visually and, with the help of Turner, aurally.
Pride by Tabby Down
I am lucky enough to be someone whose family history stems from traditional Welsh mining roots, so seeing a film like this, and knowing that my Grandad lived through these events, was moving and truly gave me a huge sense of pride in being Welsh.
Matthew Warchus’s comedy drama Pride follows a LGBT group in 1980s London who realise that they are not the only minority group who are being bullied by an oppressive government and police force – so are the miners in rural Wales.
News reaches the group of the terrible conditions experienced by those striking in the mines, and they take it upon themselves to raise money and support the tiny (so tiny that it almost seems fake but, believe me, it’s accurate) village of Onllwyn. This unlikely alliance, and stellar cast featuring Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Dominic West, leads to laughter, tears and, primarily, a heart-warming representation of Welsh community and culture.
As a Welsh girl through and through (CYMRU AM BYTH), I personally believe that there is no better way to encapsulate the sense of Welsh community than through a village hall. Warchus represents this perfectly within the film, with many key points of the narrative taking place in the village hall setting. An initial ignorance is shown by the miners due to ruralness and isolation, however, tropes such as a ‘dance party’ and ‘sharing a pint’ bring the characters together. There is a particularly impactful scene within the village hall, in which Mark Ashton (the leader of the LGBT group) apologises for not raising enough money. Despite this, the village hall then erupts with a rendition of ‘Bread and Roses’, with the English characters utterly amazed at the sense of community on display.
I consider Pride to be in my top three favourite films of all time. When I pestered my family to watch it too, my Dad was hesitant, worried that it would bring up memories of my late Grandad who lived through the strike. As the film progressed, however, I noticed him smiling, laughing, crying; and it is this reason why ‘Pride’ is such an iconic film for Welsh people like me. It keeps the memories of hardship alive, as it also does with cherished memories of people, family members and loved ones.
Patagonia by Yasmin Begum
Directed by Welsh director and artist Marc Evans, Patagonia was released in 2010 to international critical acclaim, and has remained enduringly charming and poetic in its themes and cinematography. Produced in Wales with Ffilm Cymru Wales, and including a significant amount of Welsh dialogue, Patagonia, in many ways, articulates much about modern Welsh identity.
The film follows families with a link between Wales and the region of Patagonia in South America, which is shared by Argentina and Chile, though the Welsh-speaking settlements are found in the former. The film’s subjects are a Welsh couple who travel to the region to work and explore, and an elderly woman who travels from South America to visit her childhood home in the north of Wales. Evans’ film deals with other themes too, such as sexuality, migration and the concept of grasping at a semblance of a Welsh identity. Whilst the location of Welsh identity as global isn’t one that is widely explored and, rather, is usually seen as static, homogenous and unchanging, this film is the opposite. Most explorations are inward-looking, focusing on topics such as the country’s industrial and linguistic heritage, or indeed the Welsh diaspora. This is the first of many films that explores Welsh identity to its absolute core.
The region of Patagonia is often discussed in Welsh public life but very rarely explored in depth through film. Known as Yr Wladfa in Welsh, the term literally translates as ‘the colony’. It was colonised by those hailing from Aberdare in Rhondda Cynon Taf and others who were worried that the Welsh language way of life was being eroded by industrialisation. A Welsh language speaking population are still found there today, nearly all of them also bilingual, speaking Spanish.
As Patagonia shows, we are entering a golden age of locally produced and shot Welsh film, in the mediums of Welsh, English, Spanish and more, as the canon and field constantly expands.