FOLKLORIST Henry Glassie is one of the most renowned academics in his field. The American has dedicated his life to recording and documenting the art, song, and traditions of people from all across the world, from a tiny village in Fermanagh to a mountain town in Turkey.
Corkman Pat Collins has directed over 20 documentaries, charting everything from Irish funeral traditions in Talking To The Dead to the life story of sean-nos singer Joe Heaney in Song of Granite.
The marriage of Glassie and Collins through the lens of the documentarian’s camera is a perfect match — two quiet men, dedicated to the story, one who collects them and one who tells them. Henry Glassie: Field Work is now available to view on IFI@home and Gate Cinemas online, certificate G, and is given a 4-star review in this week's Downtown.
Drimoleague native Collins recalls when Glassie first captured his attention.
“It was 2010. I was listening to Arts Tonight on RTÉ Radio 1 and host Vincent Woods was chatting with Henry. I found the way he spoke about his life and work fascinating and captivating. I contacted Vincent to get an address for Henry as he didn’t have an email or use a phone at the time. I did that old fashioned thing, I wrote him a letter and he wrote back and we corresponded for a couple of years like that.”
In 2016, Collins met Glassie in a Dublin hotel and proposed the idea of a documentary.
“He wasn’t sure about the idea, but we kept talking about it. He and his wife, Pravina Shukla, were working on a book about sacred Brazilian art and we agreed I would go with them and document their work.”
Between discussing, getting funding, and filming, it took almost ten years to complete, but Collins isn’t afraid to pursue something that captures his imagination. Glassie sees the world through the people and the art they create. To understand him, Collins chose to film the world through Glassie’s eyes by filming artists at work.
“If you share the same kind of value and philosophy as your subject, then you already respect their work,” said Collins.
“If you respect it then you want to capture something of their work as they see it and show that on screen.
"If you are making a documentary you have to love their work otherwise it won’t be a good documentary. If you don’t love it you’ll be struggling from the very beginning and that will show in the final film.”
The documentary is sprinkled with interviews with Glassie, but much of it focuses on the artists he was studying, from woodcarvers to ceramicists. “When we were filming, we quickly realised it was really interesting to watch them working without any kind of commentary. We interviewed them, but the work spoke for itself. We didn’t need to hear their voices to hear their story.”
Collins says he didn’t feel pressure to follow the conventions of documentary making thanks to funding from Screen Ireland and the Arts Council.
“We were free in how we approached it and how we edited it and how we shot it. We could have experimented a little, even though I don’t think it’s experimental, it’s kind of old fashioned. It reminded me of Hands, the David Shaw-Smith show from the late ’70s, early ’80s. which focused on Irish craft makers.”
Part of the film focuses on Glassie’s love of sound and song, which he shares with Collins. There are times the sounds of the surrounding area are left in for the audience to hear, like car horns in Brazil and children playing football.
“It’s the nature of when you’re making documentaries, you’re trying to find a quiet location to interview somebody. You don’t want that much background. If there’s a car passing, everybody says hold on, wait for it to pass. I decided to let the sounds of everyday remain and it felt like such a liberating thing.
"In a small village in Brazil where we film one artist we could hear a wheelbarrow pass by, we heard children playing and dogs barking. When it came to editing the footage the sounds were gorgeous to listen to, we had to leave them in.”
There are parallels in Glassie’s and Collins’s work, but does Collins see himself as a folklorist?
“In another life, I might have been one, there is some crossover in documentary making and folklore anyway, but definitely in my work. I’ve made documentaries about various traditions, it’s something I am very interested in, but I don’t think I have the discipline to work in the way Henry does.
"I love working on a subject for six months or two years, then I get restless. I need to move on to something else.”
Collins is looking forward to his film having a home screening at IndieCork.
“It is a great festival. I’ve screened work there before and they do a great job. They have a very different style of programming than other festivals so it’s great to be part of it. I know they can only screen for small groups with social distancing, but it is great some people will get to see it.
"Zoom is great, but is becoming tiring. You just don’t get the same experience watching something at home. There are distractions, you find yourself taking a break. I hope cinemas can keep going no matter how small the audience.”