Deconstruction is a critical outlook concerned with the relationship between text and meaning.

-Wikipedia, great source of 21th century knowledge

In other words, following on the footstep of Saussure and Derrida – but hopefully with slightly more clarity -, let’s first attempt to know what we are looking at by distancing ourselves from our key concepts and looking at what they mean in our linguistic system. No fancy greek or latin here; the OED definitions will do!



1/ Relating to the traditional art or culture of a community or nation: a folk museum

2/ Relating to or originating from  the beliefs and opinions of ordinary people: a folk hero; folk wisdom

Origin: Old English folc, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch volk and German Volk

and for the sake of the argument:

Tradition [NOUN]

1/ The transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.

2/ A long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from  one generation to another.

3/ An artistic or literary method or style established by an artist, writer, or movement, and subsequently followed by others: visionary works in the tradition of William Blake.


1/ A story or event recorded by a camera as a set of moving images and shown in a cinema or on television.
2/ Cinema considered as an art or industry
Origin: Old English filmen ‘membrane’, of West Germanic origin.

Cinema, Moving Images, Film… there are a multiplicity of words to designate what is being captured, the material on which it is being captured and the experience of spectatorship resulting in the use of such material. Cinema is a place, cinema is an experience, cinema is an industry.

When it comes to folk, the term moving images might be deemed more appropriate. Cinema is industry, folk is the opposite of an industry. Folk is tradition, passed on from generation to generation in an almost mystical process. Cinema was created a little over a 100 years ago.

Yet, Film Folk Gathering organiser Jamie Chambers does not shy away from the paradoxical concept of ‘folk film’ [1].

Interestingly, nothing in the definitions found in the OED hints at what Chambers calls a lack of stability of the word ‘folk’ in his article. On the contrary, it stems from ‘long-established customs and beliefs’, sometimes even becoming a ‘method‘ with followers (see DEF.3 example). A method suggests a standardised set of rules that are easily passed on.

‘folk’ can be rural and urban; pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial; can embody an address to the present, to the past, or both; can be traditional, contemporary, or both; it can be rooted and bounded, or diasporic and hybrid, or – once again – it can be both.

Jamie Chambers, ‘Nowt So Queer As Folk’

I am tempted to argue that Chambers’ utopian definition of ‘folk’ is dictated by a political need to transform the concept of ‘folk’ for two main reasons.

  • ‘Folk’ is derived from the German ‘Volk’ i.e. ‘a people’. Therefore, why is Scots film critic Colin McArthur so worried ‘folk cinema’ might become ‘Volk cinema’ [1]? A literal translation would  reveal it to mean ‘the cinema of the people’, a rather harmless artistic project, famously pursued by Soviet silent film-makers for instance. Yet, it is the German root which is problematic here. ‘Volk’ has become quiet an unpopular term since the national-socialist ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer!’ and is therefore to be avoided. Yet this same slogan is part of the history of the German concept of ‘volk’; and more widely of the concept of nationhood. It is even more interesting when discussing Alsace since it is an area which has been torn between two very different ideals of nationhood. Indeed, while French philosopher Ernest Renan advocates for the nation as a ‘daily referendum'[2], German nationhood is based on descent, on something that is passed on, i.e. on belonging to a ‘volk/folk culture’. Technically, ‘volk’ is therefore not ‘diasporic and hybrid’ it is geographically specific and leaves no room for flexibility.
  • ‘folk’ as an ancestral belief passed on from generation to generation is not a sustainable cultural  form. It is not adaptable to the global world of communication and exchange. Knowledge is no longer handed from parent to child in a single, one-way communication channel. Folk needs to be able to travel, it needs to be growingly inclusive and evolving.

Both those arguments are key to the shifts in the definitions of ‘folk’ as formulated by Antonio Gramsci.

That which distinguishes folk song in the framework of a nation and its culture is neither the artistic nor the historic origin; it is a separate and distinct way of perceiving life and the world, as opposed to that of ‘official society’.

Antonio Gramsci, Letteratura e Vita Nazionale


The political aim of folk – which does not even appear in the OED definition – is now central to its meaning. Folk songs and oral culture are popular forms of protest against censorship and the official  culture. They are also grounded in popular preoccupation and to be successful, they need to capture the popular response to the incident they deal  with [3].

Those ideas came to become global, translated into English by Scots Hamish Henderson, who himself worked with American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who  himself travelled the whole world to record folk songs and oral culture. In the 1960s, folk became a global phenomenon as a carrier for leftist political ideas. It still reflects today an ideal of community spirit and opposition to bourgeois high-culture [4]. Through his influence on the Scottish cultural scene, folklorist Hamish Henderson tried to materialise this concept of folklore for educational purposes. Rather than celebrating a high-culture which the lower classes had not interest for, Henderson suggested the celebration of a culture which they felt closer to.

Indeed, folk culture is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Folk songs are not written for/by the people but they are adopted because they conform to their way of thinking and feeling.

This argument suggests the essence of folk might lie with the audience rather than with the artist.

Is a folk film a film which documents folk culture? Is it a film which is made by the people? Or is it a special product within the industry-produced offer which resonates with audiences and is negotiated and transformed by popular culture?

Is this folk cinema? Captain America: Civil War (Donald Trump Edition) 


Of course not (?)





[1] Chambers, Jamie (2016). ‘Nowt So Queer As Folk’. Source: BellaCaledonia, http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2016/04/25/nowt-so-queer-as-folk/ [Accessed 06/05/2016]
[2] Renan, Ernest (1882). ‘What is A Nation?’. Paris: Calmann Lévy (2nd edition). Link: https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Qu%E2%80%99est-ce_qu%E2%80%99une_nation_%3F
[3] Martinengo-Cesaresco, Evelyn (1886). Essays on the Study of Folk Songs;  ‘the very heart of a people is laid bare in [popular poetry’s] sagas and songs! […] the ballad-maker only wields his power for as long as he is the true interpreter of the popular will’.
[4] Gramsci, Antonio (2011). Letters from Prison (ed. Frank ROSENGARTEN). NYC: Columbia University Press

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