Playlist: The Films of William Ferris
The films of folklorist and documentarian William Ferris are geographically specific, bound to his home-state of Mississippi. These short documentaries from the ’70s and ’80s—five of which will screen March 29 and 30 at Anthology Film Archives in New York City—are rough-hewn, loving portraits of people living, praying, and creating on the margins of society. The selection at AFA focuses primarily on the lives of musicians, from the multigenerational communal living of gospel singer and faith healer Fannie Chapman to the frankly shocking rural poverty of diddley bow player Louis Dotson in Bottle Up and Go. Though Ferris, a white landowner and former chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, came from a very different world than his subjects, his camera captures the warmth and joy—often elicited by music—of his subjects, patiently observing hogs, hands, and watching faces while allowing a joke or a tall tale to unfold at the teller’s pace. Like the free-wheeling cinema of Les Blank, Ferris’s films are brimming with affection for the people, animals, and lived-in landscapes he documents.
A handful of Ferris’s films were released in 2018 on DVD by the label Dust-to-Digital, packaged with a collection of his field recordings of musicians and storytellers. This Film Comment Playlist features a selection of recordings from that release of artists like Chapman and her family, fife and drum players Othar Turner and Napoleon Strickland, and bluesman James “Son Ford” Thomas, along with stories and interludes from Alice Walker, Allen Ginsberg, Barry Hannah, and Alex Haley, and related recordings of blues, gospel, and folk from (generally) the same period and region. One of Ferris’s most remarkable films, 1977’s Four Women Artists, is not screening at AFA, but can thankfully be streamed here.
Listen to the playlist below or here.
Clinton Krute is Film Comment’s digital editor.