By Ian MacKenzie
Henry Glassie: Field Work, the latest film by acclaimed director Pat Collins (Song of Granite), recently had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It’s main subject is an American folklorist who has dedicated 50 years of his life to studying folk artists and their work. From sculptors in Brazil, to carpet weaver and ceramicists in Turkey, Collins’ film accompanies Glassie (bio below) as he visits several countries to explore how each culture manifests its own standards of beauty and meaning through its artisans and craftspeople. I recently sat down with Collins and asked him about his film.
When did you first come across the work of Henry Glassie? And why did you think he would make a compelling subject for a film?
Pat Collins: I first heard Henry Glassie talking on Irish radio, in 2010. It was a night time show called Arts Tonight and the host was the poet and playwright Vincent Woods. They spoke for an hour — about folklore and art, his time in Ireland in the ‘70s, in Turkey in the ‘80s and his growing-up years in Virginia. He made a huge impression on me. He was able to express what I had felt but couldn’t express myself. About two years later I wrote to him (he doesn’t do e-mail), and we corresponded on and off for several years. Glassie is one of the most articulate people I’ve ever met.
Henry appears at the beginning, and then is not seen or heard for quite a while. Why the decision to have him appear so little and focus on the artisans?
Well, it’s the way the film evolved. We decided early on, before going to Brazil, that we would film the artists at work. It became obvious to me that observing the artists working was enough in itself and it was replicating Henry’s experience of how he encountered the work. But it was a decision that was ultimately made at the beginning of the edit and though we tried to intercut some v/o and interviews with Henry in this section, we just felt that it was important to just observe the artists working and then ease into Henry.
The effect on me as a viewer was that I felt like I was seeing everything through Henry’s eyes, like a witness to the proceedings. I could understand why he was so captivated by his work, and the people he spends time with. Please comment on this.
That was the motivation of the style. I felt that the film had to reflect Henry’s work and his experience in the field. And that’s why in the opening 40 minutes we just observe the artists working. But then I do think that it was important to slowly to move into some of Henry’s story, about his approach to his work, the places that he’s visited, what he’s learnt. He’s an incredible talker and we had to leave a huge amount of interesting material out of the finished film. But this is true for most films.
The decision to show long, nearly silent passages without any voice-over requires more patience from the viewer, especially those accustomed to the fast pace of modern media. Tell me more about your stylistic approach, and how it compliments what we see on screen.
I wanted to create an atmosphere that is both true to Glassie’s outlook and writings and true to the places and people that he writes about. I’ve made over 30 films and many of them have a very slow pace. I just prefer that style of film making. It’s what I’m drawn to. I prefer to make films that are experiential and meditative, where the viewer is given time to contemplate the ideas that are being explored and the visual texture of the world as we are filming.
The connection between religion and art is a theme that comes up in the film, especially the idea of the creative process being itself a kind of religious experience. What did you learn from these artisans that might have an effect on the way you approach you own art as a filmmaker?
The Catholic religion was a huge part of my life growing up and the singing and music and the language must have had some impact. Even the notion of infinity was something that struck me very early through religion. For me the transcendent is important in work. The work of Tarkovsky, Dryer and Malick are important to me. I think the concentration on the work, the meditative quality is akin to prayer perhaps. And my process of working allows for an easing of control, of almost believing that something greater is at play and I’m not fully in control of it.
Can filmmaking be considered in the same category of art and craft as that which we see depicted in the film?
I think film making at its best is undoubtedly, art. But more often than not it can’t be seen as art – more often than not it’s entertainment. Sometimes it seems like a lot of film isn’t even creative. I don’t see what I do as a director as craft, as such. It feels like I’m beginning anew each time. What I learned in my last film isn’t applicable to the one I’m going to make next. You do learn to trust the process – but you still can’t take any shortcuts. You have to go through the whole process of discovery. Which I feel is a little different to craft. But classifying art as craft is problematic anyway. Why is it that someone painting on canvas is considered art – but making an intricate rug or pot is seen as craft. I think Henry would consider that way of thinking nothing less than class bias.
Your film is screening in the Contemporary World Cinema category, not in TIFF Docs. Do you consider this a documentary?
It’s definitely a documentary. It’s not a conventional biographical documentary but it’s not an essay film either. Maybe it’s just a ‘film’.
What freedom does it allow you as a filmmaker to not have to follow certain narrative conventions? What are the challenges when presenting it to an audience unfamiliar with this approach?
You’ve got to trust that the audience will be open to discovery. I can’t make films any other way – so it’s not like I have a choice. Each film demands its own approach and you have to be attentive to that. I’m just trying to make the best film I can. The audience is important, but it is secondary to the work. I can only present it to the audience as best I can and hope that some people get something from it.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
I hope when people see the film, they value the work that Henry has done over the last 50 years. And I hope it makes the world a little larger. We get very stuck in thinking our own little bubble is the whole world. So, I’d like people to open up to the possibility that everyone is creative. Everyone has the potential to be an artist. In fact, that they are born that way. It’s my own experience that if you expand your view of what art is -then it is true to say that I have never met anyone who hasn’t an appreciation for art. And in a way that’s a radical statement because it’s not what we are led to believe.
Henry Glassie Bio:
Henry Glassie, College Professor Emeritus at Indiana University, has received many awards for his work, including the Chicago Folklore Prize, the Haney Prize in the Social Sciences, the Cummings Award of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, the Kniffen and Douglas awards of the Pioneer America Society, the Nigerian Studies Association Book Prize, and formal recognition for his contributions from the ministries of culture of Turkey and Bangladesh. Three of his works have been named among the notable books of the year by The New York Times.
In 2010, he was given the American Folklore Society’s award for a lifetime of scholarly achievement. He received the prestigious Charles Homer Haskins Prize of the American Council of Learned Societies in 2011; the award honors a “scholarly career of distinctive importance,” and Glassie is the first folklorist to be so honored.
Glassie has lectured throughout the United States and Canada, and in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Malta, Turkey, Israel, Kuwait, India, Bangladesh, China, and Japan. He is the author of Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, All Silver and No Brass, Irish Folk History, Passing the Time in Ballymenone, Irish Folktales, The Spirit of Folk Art, Turkish Traditional Art Today, Art and Life in Bangladesh, Material Culture, The Potter’s Art, Vernacular Architecture, The Stars of Ballymenone, Prince Twins Seven-Seven: His Art, His Life in Nigeria, His Exile in America, and Daniel Johnston: A Portrait of the Artist as a Potter in North Carolina. He is also the co-author of Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line and Sacred Art: Catholic Saints and Candomblé Gods in Modern Brazil.