Pat Collins (director)
16 April 2021 (released)
05 April 2021
“Folklorist: A person who studies folklore, especially as an academic subject.” That’s the definition from the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online. It perfectly sums up the work of Henry Glassie who has for over 50 years been travelling around the world cataloguing and studying communities through their art be it through carvings, painting, sculpture and tales. Academics call this anthropology, which comes up during the documentary.
His latest journey is to Brazil where the film starts and it’s a perfect balanced study of a master and his craft as the sculptor painstakingly plies and moulds the clay to create – over several days - an exquisite sculpture. Director Pat Collins eschews any commentary relying on the sound of the sculptor and the clay with the sounds of the village in the background. It brings to mind Víctor Erice’s The Quince Tree Sun which followed Spanish painter Antonio López in its painstakingly attention to details, the camera just resting on the subject as they work.
As interesting (and engrossing) as this is after a couple of countries (Glassie also goes to Turkey) the vignettes begin to wear thin, which Collins may have thought too as there’s a switch to the US and Glassie’s home.
This now becomes a more conventional biography with Glassie a fascinating person, recounting his youth and his discovery of folklore (only at university learning that its anthropology) then becoming his life’s work and passion. Allowing Collins access to his vast archive and with Glassie’s natural eloquence we gain an understanding of his work and what drives him. A blend of the spiritual and the practical that translates to copious notes, diagrams and plans.
Where the film stumbles is in Ireland where Glassie sets about collecting the stories as told by the locals in the border towns during the ‘troubles’. This was a period of massive disruption and division, driven by complex and passionate issues. It is still a hugely complicated area which probably merits a film in its own right to give the subject justice as there are some tantalisingly beautiful ideas and language that could be have been expanded.
As it is, this section looks tacked on and incongruous, more so as the film before this had returned to the camera quietly observing the artisans of North Carolina as it did in Brazil and Turkey which would have provided a tidier coda.
Henry Glassie: Fieldwork is available on digital platforms from 16 April