By Phoebe Chen

Pat Collins’ Henry Glassie: Field Work follows the folkloric practices of its title subject, an emeritus professor at Indiana University who has spent the past 50 years in decade-long sojourns with folk artists across various continents. That a white, American ethnographer should be the ideal interlocutor for communities of craftspeople in rural Brazil or Turkey seems dubious, especially one as institutionally accoladed as Glassie, but these misgivings are thankfully unfounded: “I don’t study people,” he stresses, “I stand with people and study the things as they create.” In Maragojipinho, a town in Brazil’s northeastern Bahia, a craftsman twists clay to mimic the folds of a ceramic Madonna’s flowing regalia; in the seaside city of Salvador, a woodworker bevels the face and votive pose of a saint in prayer from a single piece of wood, as though her slow excavation is fuelled by some sense of the divine. These protracted scenes of reverent making comprise most of the film’s runtime, bookended by establishing shots of stacked cities and blue mountains that crest like waves. Glassie appears as an intermittent talking head, relaying principles that sound aphoristic, but charm with their generous reading of the world: “The unity in being of the personal and the social is, at its peak, made sensate in creative acts that allow us to be ourselves, to communicate, to connect with others and build with them the social alliances of mutual benefit.”

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