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George Stoney Feted at NYU

By David Weisman

George Stoney (second from left) with Jim Brown (far left), Dean May Schmidt Campbell and David Irving

For three decades, George Stoney has been teaching documentary film production and studies at New York University; his former students have included such filmmakers and producers as Jim Brown (The Weavers, 1982), Judith Helfand (Uprising of ’34, 1995) and Jackie Glover, former director of programming at HBO. Stoney, the 1998 IDA Preservation and Scholarship recipient, was honored last October with a weekend-long tribute entitled “George Stoney and the NYU Documentary Experience.”

At 83, Stoney is also admired for his irrepressible energy, enthusiasm and generosity. On the opening evening of the tribute, Professor Stoney played congenial master of ceremonies to a platform of students and colleagues who shared their reminiscences along with clips from various periods in Stoney’s film career.

In a career that spans half a century, Stoney has produced documentaries in all formats, from the Academy Award-winning All My Babies (1952), with its exquisitely composed 35mm black and white photography of Georgia midwives, through his current small-format video work, the intimate and enlightening biography, Paolo Freire In Action. Never dogmatic in terms of technology, Stoney was an early pioneer in using video for social change.

Colleagues at the tribute recalled Stoney’s with the National Film Board of Canada's "Challenge for Change" program in the late 1960s, for which he jumped into the fray and produced You Are On Indian Land and VTR St. Jacques. The latter work chronicled the first use of portable (though hardly "lightweight") video equipment by a lower-income Montreal neighborhood attempting to document their community's plight. In keeping with his legendary activism, Stoney co-founded the Center for Alternative Media at NYU, an achievement that earned him the moniker "the father of public access television"—a moniker to which, in typical Stoneyan modesty, he conceded, "since paternity has gotten harder to disprove these days.”

Attendees at the tributes testified to Stoney’s role as a mentor. Terry Filgate, who shot Stoney’s The Newcomers in the early 1960s, thanked him for "teaching me how to look through the camera." Bob Woodsey, who worked with Stoney on The Mask (1965), remarked that "one must accept the challenge when George critiques you." This attitude was shared by Jim Borwn and Judith Helfand, both of whom related how Stoney’s honest appraisal of their work—he would typically say, “I'm sorry, but I don't think you've got a film there"—only spurred them to further examine and refine their material.

To balance the critique, however, Stoney alum Amit Das reminded listeners that "George is always the first to refer to his own production mistakes as a reference." Like many of his students, the attendees appreciated and trusted his instincts; the awards and recognition they subsequently garnered attest to the value of these lessons.

Saturday brought panel discussions reflecting Stoney's long career as an advocate for social change. The topics included “The History and Future of Public Access Television”; “Using Films for Social Justice”; and “The NYU Documentary Experience.” The latter panel featured former students Helfand and Jackie Glover, both of whom cited Stoney’s maxims on documentary making. Stoney would stress that the goal of documentary is to help people tell the story in "their own voice," not the filmmaker's. It is much more satisfying to "reveal people" through the process, he felt, rather than just "using them" in front of the camera. He also believed that just because the maker doesn't belong to a particular culture doesn't mean that one can't make a useful statement—just a "different statement" than the subjects would. The panelists all agreed with Stoney's emphasis on film as a call-to-action that would provide a motivation for "what to do when the lights come up."

Saturday and Sunday included showcases of the work, both rough cuts and completed films, of Stoney's students. These small venue screenings were followed by question-and-answer periods, marked by lively exchanges with the audience. Professor Stoney quipped that "making documentaries gives you a chance to stick your nose in other people's business," but quickly added that "the true collaboration is with the people in front of the camera, without whose confidence and generosity we'd have no films to share." The three-day celebration gave clear evidence that, far from worrying about the obsolescence of video formats or the decay of film negatives, George Stoney has created an enduring legacy through his students—many of whom have become educators. His greatest work may just be this living endowment to the documentary tradition.

David Weisman is a former student of Professor Stoney, NYU, 1983, and Los Angeles based independent producer whose most recent work is the 28 part environmental science series for PBS, Preserving the Legacy.