A harrowing, scandalous north Walian crime gets the drama documentary treatment in new film The Rev, an intriguing new take on an ‘urban myth’. Keiron Self speaks to its director, Rhys Edwards.
Documentary director Rhys Edwards heard tales of The Rev‘s subject, Reverend Emyr Owen, as he grew up in north Wales. Owen, an outwardly mild-mannered clergyman resident in the Gwynedd town of Tywyn, was arrested for making threatening phone calls. He was subsequently found to be in possession of pornography, and books on black magic, cannibalism and surgery. Then there were the slides – of penises, cut from dead bodies later buried by the Reverend, their families none the wiser. He believed people could enter into heaven far easier without their genitals.
Sounds like a lurid tale? Aspects of it truly are. “Devil Priest” headlines from the Sun make an appearance, as do clips from an earlier 1990s S4C documentary about Owen that are indicative of their time, but Edwards’ film tries to focus his story through a different lens: “non-homophobic, non-judgemental eyes,” as he puts it. The director makes it clear that he does not want to be an apologist for his subject’s actions but to try to understand and contextualise them.
Through a series of talking heads interviews and reconstructions, in The Rev, Edwards pieces together a fuller picture of this bizarre story. It offers a snapshot of Tywyn back in 1985 – when Owen was arrested by Detective Inspector Gwyn Roberts – and the homophobia and claustrophobic nature of the era, subsequently unravelling Owen’s turbulent, incredible past.
Everything from bullying at slate mines to polyamorous relationships with two other men, chapel cover-ups to gobsmacking interviews are covered by Edwards in the film. The legal challenge to get Owen convicted was also convoluted: his offences set new challenges, as what he did, while morally and ethically repugnant, was not criminal according to the minutiae of the law.
It’s taken a few years to bring this subject to life in the even-handed way Edwards intended – self-funding the film between other documentary jobs and, determined to shake matters up, giving well-known Welsh comedian Eilir Jones the title part in scenes reconstructed from transcripts. Jones himself has a link, hailing from Tywyn himself and knowing the Reverend as a child growing up in the area.
Various people offer their take on the subject, from the arresting officer himself – the “subtle as a brick” DI Roberts, who makes no secret of his attitude towards Owen, to more conciliatory psychiatrists and priests who wrestle to come to terms with his extreme actions amidst a mental health prism. Edwards attempts to show this vilified figure’s psyche, his case and character still troubling communities decades later, and The Rev offers a more nuanced investigation. As the director says: “The story had been told before, but I think now the whole story has been told.”
The Rev premieres on the Icon Film Channel from Mon 9 Oct and follows on all major UK digital platforms from Mon 8 Jan.
words KEIRON SELF