Film Review: HENRY GLASSIE: FIELD WORK (Ireland 2019) ***

Henry Glassie: Field Work Poster
The worldwide travels and unique cultural finds of renowned American folklorist Henry Glassie are enthralling chronicled in this portrait by director Pat Collins.


Henry Glassie and his wife are folklorists, the audience is told at the beginning of this Irish documentary that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.  They have travelled around the world for field work, their last year spent in Bahia, Brazil.

What is a folklorist and what do folklorists do?

Folklorists—many of whom are members of the American Folklore Society or of similar associations around the world—live and work throughout the world. They include students, teachers, scholars, consultants, community organizers, educators, and public agency professionals. Folklorists’ interests range from local family traditions to transnational issues of ethnic conflict, from publications to public programming, from the performing to the visual arts, from everyday life to communities’ most special occasions, and from research to public policy.

Folklorists publish scholarly articles, in-depth books, and engaging exhibition catalogs. They produce award-winning documentary films and recordings (as do director Pat Collins and subject Henry Glassie), as well as nationally recognized radio programs.  Most important, they work to establish public policy that honours and respects cultural diversity as this doc demonstrates.

Whatever their particular interests or work, folklorists recognize the value of experience-based knowledge and the importance of understanding the intersections of artfulness and everyday life. The artistic, cultural, educational, historical, and political questions folklorists raise place the field at the leading edge of contemporary cultural issues, and establish folklore as a primary field of the humanities.

The doc is not flawless. Unlike other docs, there is clearly a lack of archival footage  When songs are used in the film, only photos of the singers appear on screen.  Some have titles of their names and some do not.  The film goes on to inform of Glassie’s childhood and background at the midway mark of the film instead of the start, after going through some of his subjects.  As a result, the doc looks disorganized in structure and in its arrangement of the presentation.  There is one scene filmed in Turkey in which the mike from the boom can be seen at the top the screen.

As the doc takes the audience around the world, particularly in the countryside away from the cites, there is some stunning display of nature – of the mountains, forests  and rivers, courtesy of cinematographer Colm Hogan.

Watching as a few pottery craftsmen work their wares is somewhat equivalent to watching paint dry.  The film is extremely slow.  In the midst of the film, Glassie says that folklore is patience and reverence.  That is so true.  For one to appreciate this film, one has to be interested in folklore – and to be both patient and reverent towards the material in the film.  

Director Collins only attempts to connect his audience to his subject at the end of the film.  Glassie talks about his encounters with folk in different countries.  He tells the audience that in is opinion, most people are generally good and willing too are their experiences.  Otherwise, folklore can be quite the isolated subject for many.