February 5, 2011

The Great Collaborator: George Stoney

Setting out to write a piece about legendary documentarian, teacher and public access pioneer George Stoney, I was told by many that he was the warmest, most genuine man working in the field. And after chatting with him, I'm inclined to agree. He's the first interview subject in my ten years of writing for Documentary to call me back just to check in and make sure that I had everything I needed for my article. It's a small example of what makes him "a very happy collaborator," the choice phrase by which the 94-year-old filmmaker would like to be remembered.

Collaboration with both his subjects and filmmaking colleagues has been a continuous theme throughout Stoney's career. After a stint in the US Air Force as a photo intelligence officer, he joined the Southern Educational Film Production service in 1946, where he wrote, produced and directed films. He later formed his own company, specializing in socially relevant films, and began teaching at institutions such as Columbia University, City College of New York and Stanford University.

A key experience in his filmmaking career occurred in 1968, when he became the executive producer of Challenge for Change, a program of the National Film Board of Canada. The program focused on community media, and gave Stoney the opportunity to immerse himself in working with local populations on film projects such as You Are on Indian Land and VTR St-Jacques.

Stoney headed back to the US in 1970, when he was asked to head up the undergraduate film department at New York University's School of the Arts. He inspired hundreds of students, including filmmaker and Stoney collaborator David Bagnall. Originally focused on cinematography, Bagnall switched his energies to nonfiction after taking Stoney's class, which features weekly screenings and discussions.

"He just draws you in; you go along with him," explains Bagnall. "He is fascinated with it so the students are fascinated with it--to speak with him and with each other, to have this great debate and discussion about everything. What does documentary mean? What does it mean to you? What does being an activist mean to filmmakers? How can your films be more active? It wasn't a sterile lecture course."

Impressed by footage that Bagnall had shot for a project about a Greek cathedral in Astoria, Stoney hired the graduating student to work on one of his films. "As a student, to suddenly be invited to work with this seminal figure in documentary was just an honor," says Bagnall. "George is just that perfect mentor that brings his apprentice into the fold very quickly. I think it was maybe the fourth or fifth shoot, during the interviews he turned around to me and completely surprised me by saying, 'Oh David, do you have any questions?'  And I was like, 'Yeah, George. Actually, I do!'" The two continued to collaborate for the next 15 years, with Bagnall working his way from cameraman to editor to co-director and co-producer.

Stoney has many long-term relationships with his subjects as well as his collaborators. Filmmaker, NYU professor and Stoney student Jim Brown says, "He had deep respect for his subjects. Where a lot of filmmakers would come in, do the filming and get out, he carried on relationships with those people, often for decades. His motivation for working with them seems to go beyond the film itself; he seems to be genuinely interested in these people, and that's not just someone that he needs something from for the hour that he's interviewing them."

One of the ways this respect manifests itself is via Stoney's interview technique. He is careful not to impress an agenda on his subjects, instead letting them take the interview wherever it organically leads. Bagnall notes that Stoney rarely interrupts his interviewees. Instead, he allows for long pauses when they finish answering a question, which gives them the opportunity to think about what they've just said. Often, they'll continue, finding a more satisfactory, clearer way to get their thoughts across. This method helps Stoney's subjects take ownership over their interviews, as well as providing rich, heartfelt material for the filmmaker.

"The trick in interviewing is to find out what causes the person who is being interviewed to respond," Stoney says. "So you're not molding what your questions are, so much as you're finding out what causes the person you're interviewing to speak his or her mind."

Another hallmark of a Stoney film is that he always shows the project that he's making to the people in it before he shares it with the public audience. "The first thing I try to do is involve the sponsors and people who are a part of the film in the making of it so that it's not just my film," says Stoney. "I want it to be theirs, because then they'll use it. If we want social change, we have to get them to claim the film as their own and feel easy about going out with it and showing it."

"He believes that we should do no harm," Stoney's archivist, Michael Hazard, elaborates. "And it's a simple thought, which in practice becomes quite complicated. But one of the ways you don't harm an individual by exposing them for their foibles, their faults, their weaknesses, their problems, their tragedies, whatever it is, is by showing the subjects the work so they can take control over their own precious images. And if there is something that a person finds embarrassing, too uncomfortable, it won't be in his final cut. How one is seen--giving the people in front of the camera the power to show who they feel they are--is what distinguishes a George Stoney film."

Stoney extended the idea of giving individuals power over their own image when he co-founded the Alternate Media Center (AMC) in the early 1970s, with funding from the Markle Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This collaboration between cable companies and the NEA launched a new era in community television production, pioneering the use of video for public access cable and providing the training ground for many of the medium's first producers. Eventually, they formed the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, the movement's advocacy and support group, which became the Alliance for Community Media, in which Stoney is still involved.

While it might seem contradictory for a film professor to champion a media entity that requires no training, Stoney believes there is room for both amateurs and professionals. "It's like writing," he explains. "We have professional journalists, and we have novelists, and we have volunteer poets. There's no reason why we should restrict the cameras to professionals, and at the same time, there's no reason why professionals can't do a very good job."

For those unfamiliar with the Stoney canon, the first stop should be All My Babies, his 1952 film about African-American midwife Mary Frances Hill Coley, aka "Miss Mary," in Albany, Georgia. Although the piece was officially a training film for midwives sponsored by the Department of Health, Stoney infuses Miss Mary with such power and tells her story with such intimacy that it transcends the educational film genre. He and Bagnall recently went back to Albany to shoot a follow-up reunion film with over 150 of the "babies" that Miss Mary helped bring into the world.

In addition to the reunion film, Stoney is currently working with Bagnall and Dave Olive on a film about late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and teaching his Documentary Traditions class at NYU, where he is an Emeritus Professor at Tisch School of the Art's Undergraduate Film division. His friends and colleagues there recently honored him for a lifetime of achievement and his 40-year tenure at the school.

When I asked Stoney how he still manages to do so much, he laughed, "It's so obvious that you use other people's energy and other people's enthusiasm--and now, other people's youth! I'm 94; I have to realize that I don't move as fast as I used to. These are the people who move around me."

 

Documentary Educational Resources (www.der.org) is the primary distributor of Stoney's work.
 

Tamara Krinsky is the associate editor of Documentary magazine and writes regularly about science, new media, entertainment and technology. For more: www.tamarakrinsky.com.

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