Film Review: Extraordinary Ordinary People

Survey of National Heritage Fellowship winners shows the breadth of art and its practitioners in America.
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With budgets for the arts in peril, Extraordinary Ordinary People couldn't come at a more opportune time. A sampling of National Heritage Fellowship winners, the documentary proves that with the proper support, artists of all types can flourish.

Director Alan Govenar has been covering Fellowship winners for over 30 years. The author of three books on the subject, Govenar also worked on a 52-part radio series about the Fellowship for NPR.

As could be expected, Extraordinary Ordinary People includes footage of some of the most significant artists of the past century, from bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe to bluesman B.B. King. Conjunto, tejano and Tex-Mex are represented by the outstanding singer Lydia Mendoza, Valerio Longoria and brothers "Flaco" and Santiago Jimenez.

"Queen" Ida Guillory, Michael Doucet, Dewey Balfa and Clifton Chenier are some of the Cajun musicians who won Fellowships. Proto-rocker Wanda Jackson and gospel singer Albertina Walker are also profiled.

Govenar devotes much of the documentary to weavers, quilters, woodworkers, boatbuilders and lacemakers whose work is often relegated to a "folk art" ghetto. Their pieces display the skill and sophistication of museum-quality art, and several attest to how important Fellowships have been in their lives.

One problem with Extraordinary Ordinary People, and it's a big one, is that the clips are too short. Kenny Baker, one of the best of the bluegrass fiddlers, is seen for seconds, as is the remarkable singer and guitarist Sonny Terry. Few of the songs or artworks are identified.

Even those profiled at length, like the Yugoslavian Holocaust survivor Flory Jagoda, deserve more time. This may be a function of just how good these artists and their work are, or a result of Govenar focusing so much attention on the history and politics of the Fellowships.

The winners are quick to admit that the Fellowships are a great honor. But as Extraordinary Ordinary People shows, many of these artists are still struggling to get by, working other jobs to pay bills. To threaten to cut off funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, as this administration has done, seems criminally shortsighted.