Skip to main content

IDA Member Spotlight: Stephen Maing

By Anisa Hosseinnezhad

Black and White image of an Asian man. He is wearing black glasses and smiles at the camera. He has shoulder-length black hair and is wearing a dark sweater and button-down shirt.

Headshot of Stephen Maing.

Stephen Maing is an Emmy-award-winning director and cinematographer based in New York City. His most recent film, Union (2024), which he directed, filmed, and edited, is an immersive cinéma vérité account of the historic efforts by workers to unionize the first Amazon fulfillment center. Union, co-directed with Brett Story, won a Special Jury Award for “The Art of Change” at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. His feature documentary Crime + Punishment (2018), which he directed, filmed, and edited over four years, won a 2018 Sundance Special Jury Award, an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Social Issue Documentary” and was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. His previous films, including High Tech, Low Life (2012), which he filmed over five years in mainland China, Dirty Gold, filmed in Peru’s Amazon rainforest, and The Surrender (2015), have screened internationally and were released on POV, Netflix and Field of Vision, respectively.

Maing’s films seek to expand the aesthetic form and limits of longitudinal nonfiction filmmaking. They are cinematic investigations of societal phenomena, complex power structures, and the fascinating individuals who challenge them. One of his upcoming films, The Great Experiment, is an ambitious cinematic time capsule of one of the most volatile and perplexing eras of American history & identity. Maing is a Sundance Institute Fellow, a United States Artists Fellow, an NBC Original Voices Fellow, and a recipient of the International Documentary Association’s prestigious Courage Under Fire Award. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a frequent visiting artist, and a long-time collaborator with underground music group 75 Dollar Bill. He lives in Ridgewood, Queens, with his partner and young daughter.

IDA: Please tell us a little about yourself, your profession, or your passion. 

I’m a New York-based filmmaker and musician working in nonfiction. My film work, more recently, has been exploring the intersection of observational modes of filmmaking and the relational aspects of social practice art-making.

In work and life, I’m inspired by people who are at the margins of society. I think a lot about the structures and systems communities must fight to simply exist within. Growing up the son of immigrants in a large extended family brimming with entrancing stories of their past lives but also informed by loss, war, and generational trauma was probably early training for me in the study of human behavior. 

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to document all sorts of people transforming themselves in seemingly untenable situations - citizen journalists, whistleblowers, artists, activists, and organizers. Moreover, I love the process by which long-form filmmaking and new forms of storytelling allow us to convey things we may not have the language to articulate. 

Understanding the gap between what is seen and unseen is something that captivates me in this work - and how filmmaking can help close that gap by challenging us to momentarily feel and see differently.

IDA: How did you first get started in documentary?

The films of the Maysles, Fred Wiseman, and Jean Rouch had a big impact on me, but an unexpected moment came in my early twenties while teaching a summer youth media program in documentary filmmaking at a now shuttered refuge for experimental and nonfiction filmmaking called Boston Film/Video Foundation. Most of my young students’ work was raw and honest, but I’ll never forget how floored (and also horrified) I was to see one of my student’s video diary entries unfold into a realtime account of an armed shootout with police just outside her apartment. Her narration as she poked the camera out the window encapsulated her fears, audacity, and sense of humor – and, in a few fleeting moments, became a profound window into her life and spirit. After class, I let her know how alarming it was, but she laughed it off, saying that sort of thing happened all the time. I told her to please not take such a risk again, but also how much it moved me. In fact, her filming stayed with me for years, and I know it somehow nudged me closer to documentary.

IDA: You have directed, edited, and filmed your award-winning films Crime + Punishment (2018) and High Tech, Low Life (2012). Has that shifted or changed your practice in any way?

I started working as a cinematographer and editor because I love the tactile immediacy and the creative process of both. The experimentation helps us continually recalibrate and deepen our attention and intention. So, over time, I think shooting and editing have helped me understand how to become a better director and channel my creative interests. It also just helps when funding can be so elusive at any stage of a project or your career.

Considering camerawork is literally about the position and positionality of ourselves in relation to participants - it’s a constant reminder of the ethical challenges and constructs of documentary, which can’t be interrogated enough. I think the act of cinematography encourages us to inhabit the uncertainty of moments. While editing also heightens our senses in another way, to glean and digest vast stretches of information, sketching and processing bits here and there, as if in the interior version of “the field.” 

Most importantly, though, I’ve had the great fortune to work with many talented collaborators and mentors. I’ll always remember Jonathan Oppenheim saying it’s a right of passage in observational filmmaking to, at some point, have no idea where things are headed.

I’m excited to keep DP’ing and editing for others and myself, and I’m intrigued to explore new kinds of projects where I don’t. Or maybe just carry a very, very small camera.

IDA: Congratulations on your Special Jury Award for Union (2024) at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Union was a 2022 IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund Grantee! Can you tell our members a bit about the film? 

Union is an observational film about a group of current and former Amazon workers in New York City’s Staten Island who take on one of the world’s largest and most powerful companies in the fight to unionize. Co-directed by Brett Story, it was an unforgettable journey embedding with this nascent group of workers as they learned to become organizers in real time and build a union from the ground up. I feel lucky to have collaborated with an incredible ensemble of filmmakers on this project, and I am immensely grateful for IDA’s support of Union and of my other work over the years. As the doc community attempts to survive, adjacent to more commercial industry forces, we are indebted to every funder who continues to recognize the merits of boundary-pushing projects - and understand that when given a chance, wider audiences do appreciate this work!

IDA: What is next for you? Are you working on anything you can share with us?

Yes! I have a few doc and fiction projects in the works and in development. One I’ve been really excited about and working on for a while is called The Great Experiment, a time-based cinema verite experiment on polarization and identity in the US. I’m also developing a doc-hybrid and scripted film project about the immigrant experience in The United States of America. Other projects in music and woodworking have been nice too, as time with my kid reminds me of the simple joy of making things.