Henry Glassie: Field Work review – hypnotic glimpses of folk art in the making | Film


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.

The film also stops off in Glassie’s original stomping ground in Appalachia, but it’s a little hard to equate the current inhabitants – slickly professional ceramicists occupying top-of-the-range wooden shed workshops – with the down-at-heel creatives elsewhere.

Glassie does, eventually, outline what motivates him, and his love for both witnessing the creative process and mapping the communities where it takes place is evident in what he himself describes as his “terrible sincerity”. “I don’t study people,” he says. “I stand with people and study the things they create.” His watchwords, he adds, are “reverence and patience” – both qualities, I suspect, that you will need to get the most out of this brave, unusual film.

Henry Glassie: Field Work is released on 16 April on digital platforms.

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