Documentaries on Philadelphia Folk Culture

Alternative content

Get Adobe Flash player

Elaine and Susan Say Goodnight to Mishegas is a short playful documentary that tells the story of a song, explores how a significant local klezmer tradition is extended (and remains relevant), and meditates on the craziness of the world. The piece explores a traditional song performed by klezmer trumpeter Susan Lankin Watts, her mother, the great klezmer percussionist Elaine Hoffman Watts, and others. The melody was in Lankin Watts' grandfather's repertoire: a treasure trove of musical traditions in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Lankin Watts put new English/Yiddish words to the tune. In the documentary, audience members sing along with the song, reflect on what "mishegas" or craziness means to them, and share their hopes for the future. "Goodnight to Mishegas" explores how new generations of Philadelphians find their own meanings in a century-old tradition. The film includes the following musicians and contributors: Elaine Watts, Susan Lankin Watts, Jay Krush, Rachel Lemisch, Jason Rosenblatt, Audrey Welber. Speakers in order of appearance are: Susan Lankin Watts, Ariel Ben Amos, Casey Cook, Alan Zemel, Susan Schewel, Lori Keammerer, Eileen Siegel, Ernie Watts, Bradley Siegel, Sarah Kodish-Eskind, Douglas Siegel, Kevin Schott, Carmen Valentino, Rakhmiel Pelz, Elaine Watts, Hannah Kliger. Directed by Barry Dornfeld and Debora Kodish. 15 minutes. 2012. $10. Buy online.

Eatala: A Life in Klezmer. Klezmer is Eastern European Jewish folk music. In other parts of the country, klezmer seemed to disappear and then was revived. But in Philadelphia, the Hoffman family never stopped playing this music. This film shares the unique Ukrainian-Jewish klezmer sounds of Elaine Hoffman Watts and Susan Watts, third and fourth generation klezmorim. Including dynamic concert footage, family movies, interviews and historic photos, the documentary shows what this music means, and how it has remained vital. "Eatala" is a loving portrait of NEA National Heritage Award-winner Elaine Hoffman Watts (her Yiddish name is "Eatala") and her family legacy. The documentary shows how a feisty and determined musician has broken barriers as a musician, a working mother, and in her persistent devotion to her family's klezmer music. Drawing on performance footage, family movies and photographs, and interviews, "Eatala" shows how the klezmer tradition has been sustained over four generations in a single family, with a good dose of humor and joy. Featuring performances by Elaine Hoffman Watts, Susan Lankin Watts and an all-star klezmer band with Josh Dolgin, Jay Krush, Rachel Lemisch, Hankus Netsky, Henry Sapoznik, and Carmen Staaf. "Moving chronicle of one family's life in music. A rare glimpse, touched with humor, of how a musical tradition was held in trust." - Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. "A 3rd-generation klezmer, the mother of a next generation of klezmorim, and a raucous, wonderful storyteller. The Philly sound in full force and dance-compelling splendor." - Ari Davidow, Klezmer Shack. Directed by Barry Dornfeld and Debora Kodish. 38 minutes. 2011. $25. (Purchase Eatala and MIshegas together and save $5!). Buy online.

Thank You West Africa: Zaye Tete. This 5-minute video postcard is a portrait of a singer and the story of a song. Zaye Tete, now a Southwest Philadelphia resident, lived in Liberia, in the Kendeja artists' village, before war devastated the country. Separated from her family and home, she wrote the song "Thank you, West Africa," in 1990, to thank people in Guinea and other West African countries for taking in Liberian refugees who, like her, had been displaced, and who had fled, often with little more than the clothes on their back. The video introduces Tete, a renowned singer in Liberia, who immigrated to Philadelphia, where her family now lives. She tells about her experiences during the war and recounts the circumstances of the song's creation. The video includes footage of Tete performances, both in a refugee camp in the 1990s and at a concert performance in Philadelphia in 2007. The small piece shares a brief glimpse of experiences of people displaced by war and tragedy, and of the resilience and courage that people can muster under terrifying circumstances. Directed by Toni Shapiro-Phim and Barry Dornfeld. Buy online.

Plenty of Good Women Dancers. This 53-minute documentary videotape features exceptional local African American women tap dancers whose careers spanned the 1920s-1950s. Restricted to few roles, often unnamed and uncredited, these women have largely remained anonymous within (and outside) of the entertainment industry and sometimes even within the communities in which they reside. Glamorous film clips, photographs, and dancers’ own vivid recollections provide a dynamic portrait of veteran women hoofers prominent during the golden age of swing and rhythm tap. Plenty features the late Edith 'Baby Edwards' Hunt, the late Libby Spencer, and Hortense Allen Jordan, with LaVaughn Robinson, Germaine Ingram, the late Delores and Dave McHarris, Kitty DeChavis, the late Isabelle Fambro and the cast of "Stepping in Time," and historic footage of Jeni LeGon, Cora LaRedd, Dottie Saulters, Juanita Pitts, the Miller Brothers and Lois, the Four Covans and others. The documentary was directed by Germaine Ingram, Debora Kodish, and Barry Dornfeld, and produced by Debora Kodish and Barry Dornfeld. Plenty is produced with the assistance of Ballard Spahr Andrews and Ingersoll, LLC and the Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, The National Endowment for the Arts, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. 53 minutes. 2004. DVD. $24.95 individuals, $65 institutions. ISBN 0-9644937-6-4. Buy online.

I choose to stay here. This documentary follows a group of people opposing the city of Philadelphia's "takings" of private homes: the little-known downside of the city's "redevelopment" initiative. "I choose to stay here" shows people fighting city hall for the right to define and preserve viable communities, and tracks their struggle for justice. The video is a collaboration between the Community Leadership Institute, the Philadelphia Folklore Project and filmmaker Barry Dornfeld. Directed by Rosemary Cubas, Barry Dornfeld, Debora Kodish, Elizabeth Segarra and Iris Torres. 23 minutes. 2004. DVD. $15 for individuals and $50 for institutions. Buy online.

"'Look forward and carry on the past": stories from Philadelphia's Chinatown" is PFP's new documentary video about Philadelphia’s Chinatown, illustrating the strength and complexity of this neighborhood. The video attends to the role of folk arts and community cultural expression in the community’s continuing struggles for respect and survival. Touching on community efforts to stop a stadium from being built in the neighborhood (one of many fights over land grabs and “development”), and on other occasions when the community comes together (including Mid-Autumn Festival and New Year), the documentary attends to the everyday interactions, relationships, and labor— so often overlooked— that build and defend endangered communities. 26 minutes. 2002. VHS. $15 for individuals, $50 for institutions. Buy online.

"Short Form" Videos on Philadelphia Folk Arts (#1 - #9)

We've developed a series of short video programs about artists from Philadelphia's neighborhoods who work in many different folk art traditions. Created out of slides and audio recordings, all shows are based on field research here in Philadelphia by PFP staff. Images presented include peoples' own pictures, photographs from the PFP archive, and special additional field recording and photography.

1. The Palm Weavers. This show introduces the art of palm-weaving, a religious folk art tradition associated with contemporary Palm Sunday observances in Italian American neighborhoods of Philadelphia. The video describes how palms are made, why artists are motivated to continue this "back-breaking work," and how customers - people in the community, dispersed one-time residents, and newcomers - keep this tradition alive by coming back every Palm Sunday to buy palm sprays to place on the graves of kin and friends, as well as palms to exchange as tokens of friendship among the living. 10 minutes. 1990 $12


2. Everything Has to Sparkle: The Art of Fancy Costume-Making. Philadelphia's traditional New Year's Day Shooters' and Mummers' Parade involves tens of thousands of Philadelphians who devote much of their available time 365 days a year to the behind the scenes efforts necessary to sending thousands of costumed, strutting, and dancing mummers in a lively day-long march up Broad Street on New Years' Day. This video focuses on artists who belong to the Fancy division of the parade, and who are absolutely committed to making art, and who draw on their own everyday knowledge and the materials around them to do so. 14 minutes. 1990 $10


3. Blanche Epps: In the Garden of Gethsemane. "Green is the master color from which all the other colors come", states this dynamic gardener, whose reflections upon the aesthetic, therapeutic, historical, practical, economic and social meanings of urban gardening are at the heart of this show. Mrs. Epps grew up in North Carolina and migrated to Philadelphia after World War II. (She "didn't have an ache or a pain until she hit this pavement," she says). Practicing heritage gardening, seed saving, canning - and teaching history, common sense, African American and Native American heritage, and "basic survival skills" - Mrs. Epps passes on a sense of how to "undormacize" peoples' home-grown and handed-down knowledge to fellow gardeners, children, kin and neighbors. 8 minutes. 1990 $12


4. Welcome to America: The Art of Being Khmer in Philadelphia. Leendavy Koung (Vy), chief writer and narrator of this video, is a member of Philadelphia's Cambodian refugee community and is especially eloquent about the place of folk arts in her own life. Her stories and reflections about surviving the Khmer Rouge regime, coming to America, and dancing and playing music within the Cambodian community provide an eloquent commentary on how people actively define their identity in a "third" land. Photographs from local Cambodian families provide vivid images of peoples' everyday lives here and in Cambodia. 9 minutes. 1990 $12


5. Normal to Me. Young Asian American teens talk about the culture their parents expect them to have, the culture their teachers expect them to have, the culture they share with other peers, and the difficulties they experience both in juggling these expectations and in finding out for themselves a comfortable way to resolve the worlds (and cultures) in which they simultaneously live. Stories, adornment and dress, and beliefs are the expressive forms featured. 9:12 minutes. 1996 $12


6. A Song for Every Occasion. This piece introduces Hawa Moore, a Liberian singer and songmaker, and her children, recent immigrants to Philadelphia. Ms. Moore talks about her background as a singer, in a "royal" family in Liberia, telling how her music was encouraged by her father, discouraged by missionaries, how difficult it is to perform here, and how she tries to teach her children. She and her children sing two songs. 8:27 minutes. 1997 $12


7. Your Drum is the One You Will Make. Mogauwane Mahloele, talented Azanian (South African) drummer, musician and carver, talks about his upbringing, and how it shapes his understanding of proper drumming. The place of music in everyday life is conveyed through his memories of the past, and through his beliefs about how young people should learn drumming. His life story is interwoven with his own singing and playing. 8:15 minutes 1997 $12


8. Paintings of My Neighborhood. Frito Bastien is a Haitian painter, recently come to Philadelphia. His life story is illustrated by, and juxtaposed with, his paintings. In addition to being a portrait of Frito, this piece is intended to help students think about the place of art in someone's life: how it can help a person express himself, express unpopular or taboo views in safer ways, remember home, find solace and comfort in a new place. 9:17 minutes. 1997 $12


9. Stories You Remember. Local Cambodian storytellers share tales they love, and explain how they used to tell and hear stories when they were young, how storytelling works in their lives now, and what Khmer values are expressed in moral tales of wily rabbit and clever poor heroes. 8:32 minutes. 1997 $12