'Extraordinary Ordinary People': Film Review

Courtesy of Alan Govenar/Documentary Arts/First Run Features
A dazzling array of talent presented in a very modestly made doc.
9/15/2017

Alan Govenar's doc introduces a little-known NEA program honoring masters of folk arts and music.

Celebrating a program built on the notion that not every national cultural treasure becomes a household name, Alan Govenar's Extraordinary Ordinary People introduces viewers to the varied bunch of Americans who've been awarded National Heritage Fellowships over the last 35 or so years. Though undistinguished as a piece of moviemaking (its aesthetic is best suited to educational settings), the doc benefits from the spectrum of talent on display. It's also a reminder, in an increasingly arts-hostile time, that government programs don't only support esoteric and controversial works: If there's not something (likely many somethings) you enjoy represented on the long roster of honorees, you may just not like life.

Given out by the often-attacked National Endowment of the Arts, the fellowships have been awarded to 422 individuals since their start in 1982; they were the brainchild of Bess Lomax Hawes, director of the NEA's Folk and Traditional Arts Program. Though the doc doesn't point this out, Hawes was part of a family who did as much as anyone to save the work of musicians from obscurity: Her father John Lomax and brother Alan, among innumerable other achievements, discovered Lead Belly and collected oral histories across the nation. Perhaps shy about mentioning money in budget-slashing times, the film doesn't seem to mention that each fellowship, targeted at those who have mastered or innovated some form of traditional art, comes with a one-time $25,000 award.

That's less than peanut crumbs in the context of the U.S. budget, but a hell of a boon to some of the people we meet: the basket-weavers or inventive quilters; the retablo maker who works as a janitor. Other of the craftspeople here run businesses — the New York woodworker who restores Byzantine screens; the shipwright rebuilding small boats.

A majority of the people we meet are musicians, though. Some have become famous ambassadors of their respective arts — John Lee Hooker, a fellow in 1983; bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, honored in the fellowship's first year — while others are simply famous to the communities for whom their music is a staple. We see the Tejano accordionist Santiago Jimenez, Jr. and singer/guitarist Lydia Mendoza; listen to the different musics native to Louisiana via practitioners like Dewey Balfa.

Govenar is enthusiastic to touch all bases here, so while we're treated to countless musical clips, we don't really get to sit down and listen long to anyone. We spend the most time with Sheila Kay Adams, a North Carolina storyteller/musician who narrates the film. She received a fellowship in 2013, and tells a very poignant story about how much it helped her.

Viewers leery of tax dollars going to this kind of thing may raise an eyebrow at how many traditions supported by the NHF aren't native to America: There's an oud player, a Cambodian dance scholar, a master of a Czech form of lace-making. Border-wall enthusiasts will be happy to know the fellowships are reserved for U.S. citizens or permanent residents. And some recipients — who are busy preserving the languages of Native American tribes or their weaving traditions — have more claim to this land than the nationalists who seemingly value diversity so little.

Production company: Documentary Arts
Distributor
: First Run Features
Director: Alan Govenar
Screenwriters: Alan Govenar, Jason Johnson-Spinos
Directors of photography: Didier Dorant, Robert Tullier
Editor: Jason Johnson-Spinos

83 minutes

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