Since John Berger’s award-winning BBC series Ways of Seeing (1972), we’ve not often seen perceptive visual arts criticism on our screens. Now from Pat Collins, the Irish director of Silence (2012) and Song of Granite (2017), comes a mesmerising documentary inspired by the writings of celebrated American folklorist and ethnologist Henry Glassie.
Collins initially wanted to tell the story of Glassie’s long career researching and writing about folk art – ranging from his native southern states, including the work of singer Ola Belle Reed, whom he recorded in the 1960s, via Brazilian potters and sacred artists to women rug weavers in Turkey. But along the way, with Glassie’s collaboration, he discovered something bigger than the folklorist’s own research. The resulting film, Henry Glassie: Field Work, is a profound treatise on the anthropology of art, blending critical study, observation, archive footage and outstanding sound recording and photography.
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More than anything, Collins’ film is a groundbreaking work on the art of seeing, reflecting on the practices of art makers around the world and their devotion to shaping their art from raw materials. Here Collins explains his journey from first learning about Glassie’s work to bringing this film to the screen.
What first appealed to you about Glassie’s work?
I heard him speaking on Irish radio while I was driving and coming back from a shoot. He was extremely articulate talking about his time in Ireland in the 1970s. I think it was really to do with his very democratic view on what constituted art. He took art as a very broad canvas. He talked about how ordinary people were drawn to making art, and I’ve always felt that art has been seen as a narrow canvas. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t got an interest in and appreciation for art. And yet, there’s a sense that art has been pushed into [being] a more elite thing. I felt he was expressing things that I wasn’t able to express myself, and I wanted to bring this idea to a wider audience.
How did you manage to translate that quality of perceptiveness from Glassie’s books to the screen? Interestingly, Glassie himself doesn’t appear on screen for the first 40 minutes.
I was taking my lead from Henry’s work. Henry and his wife Pravina [Shukla] had written a book called Sacred Art, on Brazilian artists. Within the timeframe of when we got the funding for the film, Henry and Pravina were going back to Brazil to hand out copies of their book to the people they had featured. It was natural to me to follow whatever Henry was doing at the time and for the previous 10 years. Once I knew that he was going to Brazil, we spoke about the artists that he had a connection to. We knew that we wanted to film them working. Observing people is a thing that I’m drawn to – whether it’s people singing or just people who are getting lost in their work. The Brazilian artists offered that.
The way that the film evolved without featuring Henry in the first 40 minutes is just the way it happened. When we were filming in Brazil, Henry was always stepping back out of the frame, and we couldn’t seem to include him. We almost decided to give up trying. We said we’d just film the artists. And when we got back to America, we would start talking to Henry and felt that it didn’t need him qualifying what the artists were saying or doing. I think it would have been pretty insulting to be watching the artists working in Brazil and having Henry explain it to us.
This changed when it came to Turkey, because the work he’d done in Turkey and Ireland happened a year before. It was more a retrospective, whereas Brazil is very much the present in the film.
How do you see Glassie’s work fitting into our ways of seeing our culture?
I suppose I tried to make the film as if Henry was a filmmaker making the film to a certain extent. Lady Gregory, who was a folklorist in Ireland in the 1890s and 1900s, had a phrase about studying folklore that [it’s about] patience and reverence. And I think filmmakers should have patience and reverence – unless you’re doing an exposé of something, obviously.
I prefer making films about things that are positive rather than things that are negative. I don’t want to make a film showing how the New York art scene is shallow. I prefer to make a film where I’m showing other cultures, like Henry has with his work. I prefer looking at them in terms of their excellence, rather than looking at something in terms of its failings. I think it’s much better to celebrate something if you can.
I was trying to echo what Henry is doing in his books by trying to celebrate artists who live in their communities and make art. And this is art that’s not commodified in the same way that it would be, maybe, in western urban centres. That’s getting back to that idea of class bias – when a woman in Turkey is making an amazing tapestry and somebody takes a photograph of her, puts it in a frame and suddenly that’s art. It’s a ridiculous notion really, and that’s part of my impetus to make a film. It’s to celebrate the people who are forgotten sometimes.
Observing is a quality at the centre of your earlier films too. I wonder whether you generally see your work as being ethnographic or very closely related to Henry’s work.
I just see myself as a filmmaker. It’s not something I was aware of when I was starting off, but I was drawn to the idea of folklore in my earlier work. Originally, in Silence the character was a folklore collector who was going to be collecting stories. But I just felt it was a little bit too retrospective. It seemed outdated, and that’s why I changed him to be a sound recordist. I thought it was more contemporary and less open to nostalgia.
I work within an Irish context, mostly. I see myself as trying to excavate layers of Irish experience that are not necessarily evident in Irish cinema these days. I’m influenced by things like Irish poetry. I wouldn’t be comfortable going to, say, Greenland or Iceland and making an ethnographic film. I wouldn’t feel on firm ground. I much prefer to see the film that somebody from Greenland would make.
That’s what’s good about Henry. When he went to Turkey, he lived in a very poor area in Turkey, learnt the language and became fluent. In Ireland, he lived in a caravan and brought his family over. I think that’s very important, especially in this day and age.
How important is it to tell stories about the love of art making in times when, like now, for example, illness is so close a threat to us?
Obviously it was made before COVID, but I think in the western world, especially, the vast majority of people are removed from the work that they do. I read an interview in which Henry said: ”I think therefore I am is empty. I make therefore I am is convincing.” The fact that people are working with computers and there’s no outcome to the work that a lot of them do is a very dislocating experience.
I know so little about the world that if I’ve got to see a film, I want to learn something from it. I think most people are creative, but most people are probably discouraged from being creative. There are always going to be artists who are going to rise from any community, as Henry says. And that could be singing or music – it’s not just photography, it’s not just painting, it’s not just sculpture.
At a time like now, it’s more important than ever. It’s not that everyone’s going to be able to make a living out of their art and everyone should become artists. But I think everybody should think about it in relation to their hobbies, definitely.
Henry Glassie: Field Work is in virtual cinemas from 16 April and on BFI Player from 17 April 2021.