Thursday, October 25, 2012

On The Map: Folkstreams

By Rachel Beth Rudi, Digital Contributor

In this week’s update from the Rural Arts and Culture Map, we wish to (re)acquaint readers with, one of the most valuable resources a folklorist, artist, or curious person can find. Founded by filmmakers Tom and Mimi Davenport in 1999, the site is a sort of “national park” for arts and culture documentaries which arose during the folk revival of the 1960s. Such films didn’t fit into conventional television schedules or immediately entertain average theatre-goers, and thus Folkstreams was created, giving them a new home and providing commentary on films’ processes, subjects, and cultural relevance. Folkstreams’ mission statement describes the need for an online platform and the development of this tremendous learning tool: has two goals. One is to build a national preserve of hard-to-find documentary films about American folk or roots cultures. The other is to give them renewed life by streaming them on the internet. The films were produced by independent filmmakers in a golden age that began in the 1960s and was made possible by the development first of portable cameras and then capacity for synch sound. Their films focus on the culture, struggles, and arts of unnoticed Americans from many different regions and communities.
The filmmakers were driven more by sheer engagement with the people and their traditions than by commercial hopes. Their films have unusual subjects, odd lengths, and talkers who do not speak "broadcast English." Although they won prizes at film festivals, were used in college classes, and occasionally were shown on PBS, they found few outlets in venues like theaters, video shops or commercial television. But they have permanent value. They come from the same intellectual movement that gave rise to American studies, regional and ethnic studies, the "new history," "performance theory," and investigation of tenacious cultural styles in phenomena like song, dance, storytelling, visual designs, and ceremonies. They also respond to the intense political and social ferment of the period.

The filmmakers and the researchers they collaborated with explored performances situated in a community's customary work, worship, and play. Beneath their colorful surfaces often lie serious issues of physical, psychic, and social survival under duress. For understanding what they saw the filmmakers relied more heavily on observant and knowledgeable community members than on outside "experts." They conveyed understanding through action and symbol as often as by "talking heads." See Selected Films.

Many of the films, however, are linked to significant published research. Folkstreams draws on this material to accompany and illuminate both the subjects and the filmmaking. And the films themselves add powerful dimensions to print scholarship. They offer a direct experience of unfamiliar worlds. Many of these are now receding into the historical past, but we hope the example of these films may stimulate alternative filmmaking with subjects and approaches still ignored by mainstream corporate media.
The Art of the Rural has featured Folkstreams films several times (see “Open Invitation to a Piedmont Blues Party,” “John Dee Holman,” and “La Charreada: Rodeo a la Mexicana” for a few), as they so well marry various fields of study, media, and experiences to promote a diverse community of folklorists. We relate to Folkstreams’ mission and connect it to that of our own Rural Arts and Culture Map, each anchoring story and tradition to place and deepening our understandings of the history around us. We strongly encourage readers to explore Folkstreams on their own, as well as their blog and YouTube page, and we will continue to share their material on our blog and map. We’ll leave you with selections from Tom Davenport’s 1985 film, “A Singing Stream,” featuring the music of the Landis family of Creedmoor, North Carolina.