GEORGE STONEY and THE NYU DOCUMENTARY EXPERIENCE
When most folks hear the words Film and NYU mentioned in tandem, the personality they’d most likely summon to mind would be Spike Lee, or Martin Scorsese. But if the term Independent Film truly means anything, then without question the person who has most embodied its credo in association with NYU is George Stoney, The Paulette Goddard Professor in Film at the Tisch School of the Arts. Having been at the schools’ Undergraduate Film and Television Department since l969 – and serving as its’ chairman beginning the following year – he was recently honored by way of a celebration of his work and that of his students among a slate of events over the weekend of October 22-24.
The one film for which he may well best be known is THE WEAVERS: WASN’T THAT A TIME (l985), due to the heavy rotation it has often enjoyed in the programming schedule of WNET/Channel 13 during their semiannual fundraising drives. As a result, it is also “the only film I ever made any money on”, he told me. Similar in tone was SONGS FOR RALPH, a collaborative project made by Stoney and an assembled group of students, (including film editor Paul Petrissans), which extols the legacy of Ralph Rinzler, spearhead of the Smithsonian Folkways Music series. Through interviews and performances by the musicians whose work he gave a broader hearing, there emerged a portrait of a man whose passion, vision and persistence ensured that traditional music would have an enduring outlet.
Prior to coming to NYU, Stoney was with the Canadian Film Board’s Challenge for Change Program, and one of the pieces he produced there, VTR ST. JACQUES (1969), depicted how residents of a Francophone ghetto adopted video recording in their efforts to address issues in their community. This kind of focus on social problems has been an ongoing theme in Stoney’s work, often resulting in pieces commissioned as educational tools. 1952’s ALL MY BABIES was a fascinating look at midwifery in poor black rural areas of the South, and featured staged scenarios (a technique certainly familiar to the viewer of contemporary documentaries) as well as evolving true stories of new mothers – the intended audience for the film.
THE UPRISING OF ‘34 (1995) has more recently found a life as a teaching tool, being widely circulated in school libraries. It tells the story of the killing of 7 textile mill workers in Honea Path, South Carolina and the chilling effects the event had for workers’ rights there and across the South well after 1934. What the best docs can do (and features too, but that’s rarely the case these days) is shine a light on a corner of the world or human experience that otherwise might pass from view without any outside account or knowledge of it. Such is the case in a trilogy of films Stoney has made in the Brazilian rainforest about the Kraho people and their struggle to preserve their ancestral way of life in the face of phenomenal cultural pressures: MESSAGE FROM BRAZIL (1984), KRAHO REVISITED, and KRAHOS CONSIDER THEIR FUTURE (1995).
Screening concurrently with Stoney’s films were the efforts of generations of his students at NYU, several of which ran at this years’ IFFM. OFF THE BEATEN PATH, by Pegi Vail, tracked the adventures of an assortment of globetrotters in exotic locales not usually listed in Fodor’s guidebooks. Ezra Soiferman and Adam Steinman’s TREE WEEKS humorously tracked the lives of the Quebecois who come down to New York City every holiday season to man the Christmas tree sidewalk stands; the only thing missing here was a greater exploration of the mob-run character of the business, probably because the interview subjects were only in town to earn tax-free American dollars with a favorable exchange rate and not to risk their lives. Bill Etra’s WRATH OF THE WEREWEASEL was a clever short containing some entertainingly bizarre visuals of morphing creatures; the kind that the city says you can no longer keep as pets.
As a man, I have to say I was captivated by the contrasting and wide range of opinions expressed in GROWING UP AND LIKING IT, an essay of women’s attitudes towards menstruation directed by Susan Terrill. Whereas one woman with a hysterectomy regretted losing the feeling of being connected to the timeless rhythms of the earth, another who developed ovarian cysts at age 39 was frankly relieved to be able to bid good riddance to her monthly visitor. Perhaps most humorous was the story one woman related of having heard a legend that if a man tastes your menstrual blood than he’ll be madly in love with you forever; sure enough, a gent she had a romantic misadventure with became the suitor who’d never go away.
In addition to the film screenings, there were also some panels and a workshop over the weekend. Highlighting Stoney’s pioneering use of video in documentary filmmaking and its application to television broadcasts was a panel on The Past, Present, and Future of Public Access. Though Stoney has been referred to as “the father of public access cable television”, he is more modest about his role, saying that he (along with his colleague Red Burns) simply was in the best position to demonstrate how to take advantage of this new opportunity in media to the fledgling public access community. Nonetheless, one thing made clear during the weekend was that in the realm where education, film, and social responsibility intersect, George Stoney has always played a pivotal role since beginning his filmmaking career in 1946.