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TORONTO 2019 Contemporary World Cinema

Pat Collins • Director of Henry Glassie: Field Work

“The way we were shooting the film echoed the way Henry worked”


- Cineuropa chatted to Irish helmer Pat Collins, whose documentary Henry Glassie: Field Work revolves around the renowned American scholar

Pat Collins  • Director of Henry Glassie: Field Work
(© Karlovy Vary International Film Festival)

We talked to Irish director Pat Collins to ask him a few questions about his new documentary, Henry Glassie: Field Work [+see also:
film review
interview: Pat Collins
film profile
, which was screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Cineuropa: How did the idea of making a film about Henry Glassie come about?
Pat Collins: I first heard Henry talking on Irish radio. It was a night-time show called Arts Tonight, hosted by poet Vincent Woods. They spoke about folklore and art, his time in Ireland in the 1970s, in Turkey in the 1980s and his years growing up in Virginia. A few weeks later, I wrote to him, and we corresponded on and off for several years. It wasn't until 2016 that we finally met in person and I proposed the notion of a film. Glassie is one of the most articulate and thought-provoking people I've ever met. His engagement with his material and with the artists he stands with, and his philosophical outlook, were all things that spoke to me directly.

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At a certain point, Glassie says: “I don't study people at all; I stand with people and study the things that they create [...] What do they choose to present to me as emblems of their being?” How did you study Henry Glassie?
In 2018, Henry and his wife Pravina published a book called Sacred Art: Catholic Saints and Candomblé Gods in Modern Brazil. We travelled with them to Salvador in Bahia and to a small village called Maragojipinho. There, we encountered dozens of artists whom Henry and Pravina had spent so much time with over the previous decade. We began by filming the artists at work and thought we would interview Henry and show him talking with the artists. But the way it developed, Henry was always just outside of the frame. He was happier out of the shot, and we couldn't find a way of satisfactorily including him. Henry was all about showcasing the artists, rather than himself. The way we were shooting the film echoed the way Henry worked. It wasn't about him; it was about the artists. And that's the way the movie developed.

How did you organise the post-production?
We edited the Brazilian section when we returned in the summer of 2018. The crew then travelled with Henry and Pravina to North Carolina in the late summer of 2018. Then, we returned and started to edit that section in the spring of 2019 and, in the middle of the edit, I filmed in Ireland with Henry and finalised the project in the summer of 2019. The movie is more or less chronological with the way we filmed – it just worked out that way. We never really thought of intercutting the various sections. We had access to all these incredible photographs that Henry had taken over the last 50 years and some archival footage showing him travelling around Turkey, shot by Tom McCarthy. The edit was a question of trying to reflect the way Henry worked, so that his thoughts could throw light on the artists we were observing.

Towards the end, Glassie says: “Almost everybody is good, almost everybody is really interesting, and all I have to do is to put myself in the way of other people and they’ll bump into me and teach me.” How does this statement reflect your experience as a documentarian?
It's exactly my experience of making films. Almost everyone is good. My experience in the field has been hugely positive, thinking about the homes you get invited into, the people you meet, the time people give you and what they teach you. You can read the newspapers, listen to the radio and watch the news, and if you never went out, you'd imagine the world is the most terrible place. Even during the recession of the last ten years, despite all the financial hardship, everyone tries their best to keep the bright side on top.

What did you learn from the making of this film?
Henry quotes Lady Gregory. She said that folklorists need to have reverence and patience. I feel that is the way I approach filmmaking, too. You have to sit with the subject until you learn to love what they love. If you are making a profile of someone that you respect and admire, then I see it as a collaboration. Moreover, the people who achieve great acclaim are usually no more gifted than the ones who were born in poverty, but who never received the same opportunities. It's almost never acknowledged. Finally, each “ordinary” person has an appreciation for art. If we broaden our understating of art, then I have never met anyone who doesn’t have an appreciation for art. Now, it's not all art. But it could be related to singing, music, cinema or the person who can make a beautiful table, or bring grace and genius to their sport.

What will your next projects be?
I'm shooting a behind-the-scenes film about a new dance show by choreographer Michael Keegan Dolan. The project will be completed by the spring, hopefully. After that, I'm returning to drama and making a film that revolves around Irish playwright JM Synge.

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