JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Tom Davenport is a farmer and filmmaker. He is best known for his interpretations of age-old fairytales set in rural Virginia. Davenport's movies have been honored by the American Film Institute and the American Library Association. But like a lot of independent filmmakers, he's had a hard time getting his work in front of audiences.
Davenport's concern for the plight of other filmmakers led him to launch a Web site that aims to be a national treasury of documentary films about folk art and culture. Folkstreams.net is already streaming some 80 hours of films that capture the spirit of the myriad worlds that make up America, from Italian street festivals in Brooklyn to street children in San Francisco.
NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY: It's a cool spring day. The air is damp and the earth is ripe for planting. Tom Davenport is giving a tour of his farm when he spots his young grandson running toward him.
Mr. TOM DAVENPORT (Independent Filmmaker, Davenport Films): Hey.
Unidentified Man #1: Hey.
Mr. DAVENPORT: You can come down here.
NEARY: Davenport has lived most of his life on this land. He moved here when he was 11. But these days, he leaves most of the farming to his son. Davenport and his wife, Mimi, moved into their own house on the farm in 1970. They wanted to be farmers and filmmakers. As Tom drives around the property, he talks about those days. We were kind of hippies, he says, with a grin.
Mr. DAVENPORT: And idea was that we would make - become like independent filmmakers and especially sell our films like you would honey or cane chairs or something like that through mail order or however.
NEARY: Davenport's first love was documentaries. He made films about Shakers in New England, storytellers and musicians in the rural South. He also made feature films based on fairytales from the Brothers Grimm, which he re-imagined in American settings. "Hansel and Gretel," for example.
(Soundbite of Tom Davenport's film "Hansel and Gretel")
Unidentified Woman #1: Now tomorrow, we're going to take them out there and we're going to leave them. Do you understand? We're going to do it.
NEARY: Most of these films were shot on and around Davenport's farm. He made his last feature in 1997 and it almost broke the bank.
Mr. DAVENPORT: It was really a difficult film to do, and I had to sell some land to finish paying for that film. And my wife said, never again will we do that. And so Folkstreams is a lot easier to manage than doing a feature film.
NEARY: Folkstreams is the Web site Davenport oversees from a big shed-turned-production office next to his farmhouse. He works with a group of filmmakers, scholars and archivists and two organizations based at the University of North Carolina.
The idea behind Folkstreams, says Davenport, is to give new life to independent films that haven't been seen in years - documentaries by filmmakers and folklorists, including Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger and Tom Davenport himself. These films cover American folk culture from A to Z.
Mr. DAVENPORT: Let me just read you these subjects that we have - we add these subjects as we get films that don't ever - we can't find a category that fit: African-American culture, aging, agriculture, then children, the folklore of children, children's games and songs, dance.
NEARY: And the list goes on, from festivals and folk music to women and work. One film that Davenport pulls up is about the art of stone carving.
Mr. DAVENPORT: These films are going to get us the grain of Internet films. Internet films (unintelligible) like YouTube are real, real short films, but this is a - these are full-length hour, half-hour films.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #2: They're a little under-measured, apparently, on the back to front, so we might have to it hammer back an inch.
Mr. DAVENPORT: Much of the work we do is small gravestones as which - can actually be picked up physically by two or three of us.
NEARY: If films like these found an audience at all, it was usually in college classrooms. Now Davenport says they can be seen for free at anytime on the Web.
Mr. DAVENPORT: Like cable, you don't have to turn it on at 8 o'clock, and if you don't turn it on at 8 o'clock, it's not going to be there. These films just sit out like in a library in space and anybody can watch them anywhere in the world. So these films develop niche markets. People who are interested in stone craving are going to find this film on stone craving and they're going to talk to other people who are interested in stone craving, and it becomes a, kind of, phenomena.
Dr. WILLIAM FERRIS (Senior Associate Director, Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina): Well, as a blues singer once said, it's like bringing eyesight to the blind. It's, essentially, opening the door to the world to the fact that these films exist.
NEARY: William Ferris is a senior associate director at the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, and a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has helped get funding for Folkstreams and encourages other filmmakers to put their work on the side as well.
Ferris' 1975 documentary, "Give My Poor Heart Ease," is on Folkstreams. It includes rare footage of blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta and an intimate conversation with B.B. King.
(Soundbite of documentary, "Give My Poor Heart Ease")
Mr. B.B. KING (Blues Artist): Earlier sounds of blues that I can remember was in the fields while people would be picking cotton, chopping cotton or something.
(Soundbite of guitar strumming)
Mr. KING: Usually one guy would be plowing by himself, or maybe one guy would take his hoe and chop way out in front of everybody else. And usually you would hear this guy sing.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. KING: (Singing) I wake up in the morning about the break of day.
NEARY: B.B. King is famous, but Ferris says most of the people featured in these documentaries are not.
Dr. FERRIS: There are storytellers, musicians, craftspeople who live in isolated worlds and are known almost exclusively by their community. So the filmmaker offers a window on those worlds and when that film is featured on the Internet, it brings a powerful kind of visibility to traditional families and musical worlds that are largely unknown.
NEARY: Though many of the films were made in the 1960s and '70s, the Web site also includes new documentaries. "Madison County Project" made in 2005 looks at how an earlier film affected the lives of a family of traditional ballad singers in North Carolina.
(Soundbite of documentary "Madison County Project")
Unidentified Woman #2: She knows some people's family. They are ballerinas. Or some people play football and, you know, that's like - or some people are cops. That's what their family thing is. This is our thing. This is what we do.
(Soundbite of vehicle)
Mr. DAVENPORT: This is the road to the vineyard that we're on now. And over to the left, you can see the peaches.
NEARY: Back on the farm, Tom Davenport's pride in the land is as palpable as his pride in his films and his Web site. And for him, they are all of one piece.
Mr. DAVENPORT: We are doing this because if filmmakers want to reconnect with audiences who've had these films in their closets, in their basements and had nobody's been seeing them. And so in a way, it's like the farming operation that we have here because, prior to the Internet, we couldn't get customers to come out and buy our products because we were just too small. We couldn't mass market them. So it is similar in that way.
NEARY: The films on Folkstreams are shown in full, but in an almost perfect merger of the very old and the very new, many of them can also be previewed on YouTube.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of song, "Three O'Clock Blues")
Mr. KING: (Singing) I've looked all around me, people, oh my baby can't be found. Well, if don't find my baby…
YDSTIE: This is WEEKEND EDITION. Scott Simon returns next week. I'm John Ydstie.
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