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Henry Glassie: Field Work is released digitally on 16 April in virtual cinemas.

Irish documentarist Pat Collins has built up a filmography which explores the deep connections between place and people shaping Ireland’s cultural history, but with this portrait of American folklorist Henry Glassie he looks further afield and to another voice to elucidate some of those abiding preoccupations. 

The opening shot reveals Glassie’s fine head of grey hair, and an intertitle giving his brief biog – author of numerous books on the folk art of Turkey, Bangladesh, Ireland and elsewhere – immediately create a sense of gravitas, underlined by a honeyed Southern accent as he sets out his standpoint. “The unity in being of the personal and the social is at its peak made sensate in creative arts,” he avers. “Call it art, call it folklore, but it’s a momentary fulfillment of what it is to be human.” 

This makes for a striking, articulate opening gambit, but what follows is emblematic of Collins’s highly flexible approach to documentary form: without any more contextualising set-up, we spend the next forty-five minutes joining Glassie in the field, quietly observing Brazilian folk-artists at work on a series of altar-pieces and sculptures. Definitely slow cinema rather than TV arts-strand formula.

Of course, it’s often mesmerising to watch skilled individuals do things with their hands, as clay is moulded, gilt is applied and scraps of metal are welded together. The viewer’s expectation though is that at any moment, Glassie himself or some other sage curator will chip in and explain what it is we’re looking at and why it’s significant. That doesn’t happen. We’re on our own with the work itself, and our response is our response…for good or ill. 

Henry Glassie: Field Work (2019)

In some ways, that’s a continuation of a key decision Collins made with his previous feature, 2017’s Song of Granite, a part-dramatised documentary portrait of folk singer Joe Heaney, where Collins opted not to put English subtitles on the sung Gaelic numbers. If that meant some of the meaning of the songs was lost, it also gave the audience a more direct, barrier-free encounter with the emotional contours and musical uniqueness of these traditional vocal pieces. In both films, there’s a definite trust in the audience to engage with what’s on screen, although in the case of Field Work, perhaps not everyone will be enraptured by what they’re looking at.

Your correspondent, for instance, will admit a struggle to come to grips with the Brazilian religious art on view. The very first piece we see in construction, a Madonna (?) shaped in clay, gets more ghastly as the ornamentation level increases. Firstly, the folds of her robe display a mind-boggling explosion of ruffles, then the whole grotesque concoction gets finished off with a couple of roly-poly stick-on cherubs. For this viewer, it was a please-make-it-go-away moment, yet Collins’s film feels as if it anticipates such reactions, drawing back from this Brazilian sojourn to return home to Indiana with Glassie. Thence we learn about his own history and hear his approach to folk art as diverse as Turkish ceramics and woven carpets, Irish folk tales, Appalachian bluegrass music and the Brazilian statuary we’ve just encountered.

Context is all, he reckons. The desire to make art, he suggests, is given expression by making whatever art that community values. Glassie himself started out smitten by bluegrass music and we hear some of the field recordings he made in the mid-60s. But it wasn’t enough for him to know about the songs, he wanted to find out everything about the surrounding area – thus geography became anthropology, with Collins displaying the exquisite hand-drawn maps Glassie made in America, Ireland and Bangladesh. 

Henry Glassie: Field Work (2019)

Moreover, with his spectacular walrus moustache and all-round gentle mien, Glassie’s really a natural on camera and it’s easy to understand how he’s made friends all over the world, settling in for long stints in western Turkey, or County Fermanagh. There he took a decade getting to know a small community of 150, realising in the process that Ireland’s art is verbal, expressed in song and stories, and rooted in the specifics of location.

It’s a pleasure to spend time with him, not least since humility is the key to his approach. His aim is to understand the excellence of any artwork by seeing it through the eyes of its creators, which means he must take time to understand the surroundings (plus the language and religion!) that brought it into being. Bringing in the hierarchical value judgments of his own cultural and academic formation is simply not the point here, and it’s both refreshing and affecting to see that made so plain in his life and works.

While Collins, it almost goes without saying, works in his signature shot of grey cloud hanging over the Irish bog, low moutains in the middle distance, and an accompanying archive recording of an oul fellah spinning a country yarn, here he also delivers a generous showcase for Glassie himself, which in a way teaches us some of his humility too. Those of us who were a bit judgmental about the Brazilian religious art get to watch potters at work in North Carolina, turning mounds of clay into unadorned vases of luminously simple beauty. Gauging one’s contrasting response to the different artworks and their milieux is a lesson in itself, which Collins has cleverly baked into his movie. 

This isn’t one of those docs about art that treats itself as an artefact awaiting your adoration, it’s a film to be felt, engaged with and argued over. It’s an immersive, life-affirming affair, gently restorative of one’s faith in humanity. And if it’s not exactly Collins’s most characteristic offering, it’s certainly evidence of a genuinely great film-maker at work.

Further reading

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