Sheila Kay Adams in Extraordinary Ordinary People (First Run Features)

Here’s a straightforward documentary about simple people continuing complex traditions. They are National Heritage Fellows. The fellowship, founded by the National Endowment of the Arts in 1982, is a one-time honor presented annually to American artists who have mastered their respective folk/traditional arts and is the highest American honor of its type. Some erudite viewers might be at first disappointed by this film’s lack of deep analysis of any of the arts displayed here, but most viewers will likely be impressed by the breadth of this artistic survey of folk art, most of which originated in rural and sometimes indigenous societies.

From the evolution of bluegrass to Peking opera in New York City, director Alan Govenar relishes in these art forms and their histories. In fact, this film is not his first effort documenting these torchbearers. In NPR radio broadcasts, biographical dictionaries, and other books, Govenar has profiled and chronicled for more than 20 years National Heritage Fellows. Here, he also recognizes that these keepers of tactile, visual, and audial histories are mostly average people about town, a reminder that not all artists are lucky enough to sustain themselves with their work.

Jeronimo Lozano, who works as a janitor in Salt Lake City, is a master of creating Peruvian retablos, portable altars often portraying Catholic saints. Expanding on the traditions of his native Peruvian highlands, Lozano’s retablos feature Peruvian and American historical scenes and political messages. Conflating personal and cultural histories, he continues his craft by making it his own.

Many other heritage artists who are passing cultural batons also work day jobs. To say these people possess an everyday quality is redundant, but that so many lead ostensibly run-of-the-mill lives yet are experts in their crafts epitomizes history itself: everybody has a legacy. Even musicians of keystone importance propelled their traditions through personal tastes. Bill Monroe (1911–1996) originated his form of bluegrass while drawing on the music that surrounded him as a child. B.B. King (1925–2015) explains that he doesn’t try to sing the blues. Rather, the music he likes to sing simply happens to be placed in that tradition.

The film is bookended by interviews with Sheila Kay Adams, an Appalachian singer and a 2013 recipient of the fellowship. First, she talks of her Appalachian upbringing and says of foreign-born folk artists, “What they carry in their heart, that has been given to them by their people. That’s the same thing that my people carried in their hands and hearts and gave to me, and that connects every single one of us.” At the end, she recalls her late husband’s suicide, brought about by his having Lyme’s disease. It is evident that this pain fuels her work, which itself continues a long musical legacy.

Extraordinary Ordinary People reminds us that cultures are amalgams of people and provides a solid jumping-off point for exploration. Anyone with diverse or peculiar tastes in acoustic music, weaving, knitting, sculpting, or dance will find something to sink their teeth into.

Directed by Alan Govenar
Released by First Run Features
USA. 84 min. Not rated
Narrated by Sheila Kay Adams and Elva Perez