Local filmmaker, curator receives NEA fellowship
“It’s very nice to receive that and it hopefully will bring attention to Folkstreams, which involves a lot of effort from a lot of people,” Delaplane filmmaker and curator Tom Davenport says of the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
He’s never lost sight of the public relevance of folk art and always has tried to get beyond the academics and to get the work into living rooms, before the general public. That’s the holy grail.
— Tom Rankin, Duke University professor
The National Endowment for the Arts last week announced it will honor a Delaplane filmmaker, documentarian and media curator for his contributions to “folk and traditional arts.”
The 2021 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship, which includes $25,000, recognizes Tom Davenport’s folklore-inspired films and his efforts to help others distribute their work.
Tom Rankin, a professor of the Practice of Art and Documentary Studies at Duke University, called Mr. Davenport “a mentor” in a phone interview Wednesday.
“He’s been a really influential filmmaker, who has helped and supported other independent filmmakers,” said Mr. Rankin, whose nomination led to the NEA fellowship.
In 1999, Mr. Davenport launched Folkstreams, a nonprofit streaming service for films about American folk art and culture. So far, Folkstreams provides free access to 375 films, dating to 1949.
The idea resulted from a partnership with PBS that Mr. Davenport and his wife Mimi formed 22 years ago to build a website for their feature-length film, Willa: An American Snow White.
The internet’s potential to connect independent filmmakers with audiences quickly became apparent to the local couple.
“Bringing awareness to hard-to-find films could benefit viewers and also increase video and stock footage sales for the filmmakers and their distributors,” reads part of the Folkstreams history. “The films themselves and the prospect of a viable career might also encourage a new generation of filmmakers to take up documentary work.“
Folkstreams has received grants from the NEA and other sources, along with support from organizations that include The Southern Folklore Collection at the University of North Carolina.
But, it still relied on the work of the Davenports and a few local people they hired to help.
Building a streaming service two decade ago in rural Fauquier obviously presented technical challenges.
Uploading feature-length films from the hills of Northern Fauquier with a slow satellite connection proved impractical.
“So, major help to Folkstreams came from the folks at the public library in Marshall,” Mr. Davenport recalled in a phone interview. “I lived there. And, it got so Deborah Cosby, the manager, would let me leave my laptop there overnight, uploading.”
The Folkstreams collection has grown to include the works of about 260 filmmakers.
The Davenports conceived a streaming platform before other filmmakers and curators could grasp the concept, Mr. Rankin said.
“If you had taken that idea to the Smithsonian back then, it probably would have gone nowhere,” he added. “In some ways, Tom’s an analog guy, but he’s always thinking about the next step.”
Mr. Davenport told other independent filmmakers “they wouldn’t make any money, but at least their work would get seen,” the professor said.
“He’s never lost sight of the public relevance of folk art and always has tried to get beyond the academics and to get the work into living rooms, before the general public. That’s the holy grail.”
The Davenports started making documentaries in 1969. Their subjects included foxhunting, country music and, in 1974, The Shakers, which won a blue ribbon at the American Film Festival.
In those days, they worked with 16mm film, which required bulky equipment, expensive laboratory processing and extremely labor-intensive editing.
In 1986, Mr. Davenport completed The Singing Stream, a documentary that traces the heritage of a Black family in North Carolina through songs and stories. It took five years, cost $100,000 and earned wide critical acclaim.
With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Davenports also made a series of “Films from the Brothers Grimm,” adaptations of classic fairy tales.
“Very innovative,” Mr. Rankin said of the series, which took 19th-century German fairy tales and adapted them to more modern American settings, with local actors and crew members.
At 82, Mr. Davenport keeps working.
“It’s very nice to receive that and it hopefully will bring attention to Folkstreams, which involves a lot of effort from a lot of people,” he said of the NEA fellowship.
And what of the $25,000 check?
“I’ll probably put it right back into Folkstreams. We don’t have a whole lot of money; we get about $25,000 to $30,000 a year from the NEA.
“There’s a lot of spirit and a lot of volunteer work involved.”
The NEA last week announced nine “National Heritage Fellows” for 2021, including Mr. Davenport. The government-funded arts organization will feature all of the honorees in a film that will debut in a free, public webcast Nov. 17.
“I also admire the long march,” Mr. Rankin said. “So many people get into something and get out. Tom has just been a stalwart.”
The professor added that Mimi Davenport has contributed mightily to the success of Folkstreams and Davenport Films.
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