April 13, 2021
This documentary about the celebrated folklorist also takes a leisurely look at the working methods of the artists he reveres
Henry Glassie: Field Work review – hypnotic glimpses of folk art in the making
There’s an unmistakable slow-cinema vibe to this scrupulously observational documentary, which seems somehow to go on for weeks despite its 100-minute running time. The ostensible subject matter is American anthropologist Henry Glassie, who is college professor emeritus in folklore and ethnomusicology at Indiana University; but it isn’t really “about” him in any conventional sense. Instead, the documentary, directed by Irish film-maker Pat Collins, invites us to experience Glassie’s methods for ourselves, in extended sequences in which it simply watches artists at work, seemingly in real time as they sculpt religious icons, build giant coil pots, weave carpets. The accent is very much on “folk” creators – people with little formal art education, rooted in a community, and whose work is (largely) to serve a function, rather than purely aesthetic.
Well, it’s fascinating and hypnotic to watch, and for most of the film Glassie, with his luxuriant Mark Twain moustache, is glimpsed only briefly, sitting in the corner of the frame, taking notes, or snapping the odd picture, or, like us, simply watching. The film follows in his decades-old tracks, starting off with Brazilian metal workers and woodcarvers, visits an Anatolian village that makes traditional rugs, and ends up in County Fermanagh where, in the 70s, Glassie recorded the history and music of this border community.
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