- Extraordinary Ordinary People dir. by Alan Govenar
With a rousing drumbeat and a montage of colorful dancers, musicians, and artisans, the audience is swept away from the beginning of Alan Govenar’s Extraordinary Ordinary People, a “love letter” of a film that documents 34 years of the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) National Heritage Fellowships. As the title suggests, this is the story of everyday people, outside of the mainstream spotlight, who perform in honky-tonks, churches, community centers, and festivals, or who work in the evenings and on weekends, honing their crafts without fanfare. The film highlights the stories behind some of the award recipients by taking the viewer into their homes and workshops, as well as on stage and sea. More than just a retrospective of footage from various award ceremonies, Govenar has artfully woven a complex tapestry that details [End Page 104] the wide scope of this program through the years and how it has affected the lives of these “everyday” people.
The National Heritage Fellowships began in 1982 as an effort to focus attention on the often overlooked, but masterful, folk and traditional practitioners from across the nation who not only carry on their tradition, but also make significant efforts to share those traditions with others, often transferring traditions to the next generation.
The film travels from the Appalachian front porch of musician Sheila Kay Adams to the National Mall of Washington, DC. Daniel Sheehy, Director of the NEA’s Folk and Traditional Arts Program from 1982 to 2000, appears throughout the film to explain the purpose and significance of this program. “The idea,” he explains, “was to raise the profile of the tradition in the public body politic.”
According to the NEA website in May 2018, “the NEA awards up to nine National Heritage Fellowships each year, with each recipient receiving a one-time award of $25,000” (https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/NHF_Fact_Sheet_June2018_ver2.pdf). This is a significant financial award to many of the selected artists, who are generally well known in their communities or within the genres that they have mastered, but who are relatively unknown to a broader audience. Occasionally, more acclaimed artists have received the award, including gospel singer Mavis Staples, bluesman B.B. King, and cultural advocate Mike Seeger. Typically, though, these individuals are not working for prestige or profit. They continue traditions that add richness to their lives, and they share that experience with others.
Although Govenar directs the film, the work benefits from his collaboration with editor Jason Johnson-Spinos. Together, they skillfully blend archival photographs, film, audio recordings, award-concert videos, and interview segments into a cohesive narrative. The film would have benefitted from an accessible and consistent font type—a minor weakness: the type used to introduce artists is difficult to read and is incongruous with the other captions and subtitles used in the film.
The most compelling elements of the film are the featured interviews that follow selected artists to their home communities and offer them the chance to reflect on the meaning of the fellowships in their own words. It is through these on-camera interviews and voice-overs that the artists share how marginalized many of them have felt over the years. Cajun zydeco performer D. C. Menard and Hawaiian singer Genoa Keawe both share stories of how, as children, they were forbidden to speak their first languages, forced to speak only English when they went to school. The struggles that many of these artists have encountered, and continue to endure, is paramount to the very survival of their cultural forms. The NEA National Heritage Fellowship Awards are a rare recognition from the nation that these artists’ contributions are valued.
This film is a wonderful resource to share with people outside of the field of folklore. While it is educational and entertaining, the film is not sanctimonious or overtly political. Extraordinary Ordinary People is clearly intended to be a celebration of the National Heritage Fellowship Program and the many awardees who have benefitted from it throughout the...