Over the course of half a century, Henry Glassie has conducted field studies and written countless papers and publications on folklore, music and ethnology. He has travelled the world insatiably in pursuit of this, touching down everywhere from Ireland to Turkey, Brazil and Japan, as well as the Appalachians of his native southern states in the US.
Drawn by Bloody Sunday and the wider conflict, Glassie came to rural Fermanagh in the 1970s and spent more than a decade embedded in the community of the tiny village of Ballymenone. There, he documented the music and oral tradition of its 150 inhabitants in intimate detail.
The documentary filmmaker and Aosdána member Pat Collins heard Glassie speaking one night a decade ago on RTÉ’s Arts Tonight and established contact with the folklorist.
In Glassie, Collins heard just the kind of subject that he often gravitates towards in his extraordinary filmmaking: inspired intellects who infiltrate cultural realms with heart, inspiration, and an eye on posterity.
Tim Robinson: Connemara (2011) was one such portrait, while Collins has also trained his unique lens on novelist John McGahern and Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami.
Collins and his crew accompanied Glassie and his wife on field excursions to Brazil to document craftsmen and artisans specialising in sacred art, and it is here that we begin.
In describing his approach to field work, Glassie namechecks Lady Gregory’s philosophy: reverence and patience. Instead of studying the people necessarily, he would stand beside them and regard what they are doing.
Collins adopts a similar angle for the opening third of the film, observing Glassie’s subjects with fly-on-the-wall discretion. We open with a gentleman sculpting an elaborate figure of a saint out of clay, his expression as calm and centred as hers as his hands delicately roll and fold and press.
An old master carves a huge wooden block into the likeness of a religious icon, and another blinks over a soldering iron as he sculpts a figure of an archer out of scrap metal.
Collins’ frame moves between the hands and the face with stealth. He captures both the channelled, unselfconscious mental element, or “zone”, that the artist performs within as well as the highly skilled practices that they have honed to perfection over a lifetime.
There is a very rare and mesmeric register to be found in this Galway Film Fleadh winner, one that slows you right down to its pace. It is something Collins tends to do, and when he achieves this, not only does his filmmaking absorb you wholesale from the noise of the world, but things find their way in – small delicate details that modern life has no time for any longer, things that accumulate as we begin to notice them and amount to something quietly astonishing.
Very gradually, Glassie himself moves into the foreground and begins to talk about himself and his incredible journey to set out and catalogue these craftspeople.
Appalachian folk singers, carpet weavers in the remote Turkish hinterland, Irish seanchaís and musicians, potters in North Carolina, all amalgamate their bodies and hearts in the creation of art and “a momentary fulfilment of what it is to be human”, as Glassie puts it.
Collins finally brings Glassie back to Fermanagh to walk in his old footsteps and visit the ghosts of that era who so enriched his studies there.
As we join him, you come to see that Glassie himself is now the craftsman who has come into central focus, and by looking at him in the course of his own work, things are being revealed about his particular essence.
But what also occurs to us in the final passages is that there is one more frame that can be positioned around all the creating and observing that takes place in this exceptional film, and it is Collins and the film itself.
What the Cork filmmaker does is very much linked to ideas of craft, patience and reverence, of things unforced and given time and space to blossom in their natural rhythms.
As our attention spans shrivel and we become increasingly reliant on instant fixes, filmmakers such as Collins are starting to feel more and more essential in reminding us to stop and look a little more closely at this world and the incredible people in it.