A National Preserve of American Folklore Films

Folkstreams' mission is to find, preserve, contextualize, and stream documentary films on American folklife. We are beginning to expand the mission to include films about folklife in other areas of the world.

The films on Folkstreams were produced by independent filmmakers, often working in partnership with folklorists. These documentaries focus on the culture, struggles, and arts of unnoticed people from many different kinds of communities. The filmmakers were driven more by sheer engagement with the people and their traditions than by commercial hopes. Their films have unusual subjects, odd lengths, and talkers who do not speak "broadcast English."  But they have permanent value.

They come from the same intellectual movements that gave rise to American studies, regional and ethnic studies, the "new history," "performance theory," and investigations of tenacious cultural styles in phenomena like song, dance, storytelling, visual arts, worship, and ceremonies. They also respond to the intense political and social ferment of the last century and this one.

Many of the films are linked to significant published research. Folkstreams draws on this material to accompany and illuminate both the subjects and the filmmaking. And the films themselves add powerful dimensions to print scholarship. They offer direct experience of unfamiliar worlds. Many of these worlds are now receding into the historical past. The mission of Folkstreams is to preserve these films and their records of these worlds and make them available to the widest possible audience.

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Rights and Permissions

Information on rights and permissions.

Our History

The idea of creating Folkstreams grew out of a love of filmmaking and a respect for the traditional culture of ordinary Americans.

Unable to make a living solely from his documentaries Tom Davenport developed From the Brothers Grimm, a series of dramatized adaptations of fairy tales translated into American settings. These were broadcast on public television in the last half of the 20th Century. This led him and his wife and partner Mimi Davenport in 1999 to construct a PBS website for their feature-length film Willa: An American Snow White. They quickly saw that the Internet had the potential to connect documentary filmmakers with niche audiences. A website streaming major films on American vernacular cultures could introduce audiences worldwide to important works they would otherwise never learn of or see. Bringing awareness to hard-to-find films could benefit viewers and also increase video and stock footage sales for the filmmakers and their distributors. The films themselves might also encourage a new generation of filmmakers to take up documentary work.

Before the development of the Internet, independent filmmakers did not have access to mass market advertising and distribution systems. Neither movie theatres nor commercial television networks would show their work. Video stores, when they spread across the country, wanted the Hollywood blockbuster hit. Public television sometimes broadcast the films, but its programmers were uneasy with several characteristics of these documentaries. The films often ran in odd lengths that did not fit into the time slots crystallized for television. They lacked the stars to draw an immediate audience. The language of the people filmed was a barrier. They spoke dialects colored by race and region and class or even languages like Cajun French. Audiences might lack the background to understand the social worlds that the films showed. The documentaries to which broadcast and cable programmers instead gravitated typically had national historical subjects presented through scripted narration intercut with archival photographs, newsreel footage, talking heads of scholars, and period music scored for modern ensembles. If independent filmmakers could not work through existing media institutions, they also found that they had no good way to advertise and sell to the general public. They therefore targeted libraries and schools but had no effective way to acquaint them with their films or to make a living vending them at prices that would promote purchases.