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RIP, George Stoney

George StoneyGeorge Stoney, the extraordinary documentarian, teacher, and godfather—some say father, but I wonder if he'd be comfortable with that--of the cable access movement, has passed on peacefully at 96.

George was one of the Center for Social Media’s earliest supporters, and remained our champion until the end. The Center was only one of the many projects promoting greater freedom of expression that he supported, nurtured and helped with constructive criticism throughout his life.

George came of age in the Depression, and worked early on projects alleviating and documenting poverty. As a Southerner, he was acutely aware of the intertwined injustices of racism and inequality, and all his work was infused by that awareness. A great admirer of the works of Robert Flaherty, he brought a quiet grace to his documentary films made for governments and non-governmental organizations. This included the 1952 All My Babies, his celebrated educational film about midwifery.

New voices.

The advent of video was, for George, an enormous opportunity for people whose voices had not been heard to express themselves. In the late 1960s, he joined a just-launched project of the National Film Board of Canada, Challenge for Change. The innovative program was putting cameras into the hands of Canadians who hadn’t been featured television subjects, including rural folk, people in small towns, women, and Indians.

Then he carried what he learned there back to the U.S., where he helped Americans whose perspectives had never made it to television make their own programs and start cable access centers that would show the work. Always clear-eyed about the problems, he was also a quiet and indomitable optimist.

Favorite films.

One of my personal favorites among his films was How the Myth Was Made, which asked tough questions about the consequences of documentary filmmakers’ work on their subjects. He returned to his ancestral home on the Aran Islands to see how Robert Flaherty’s film Man of Aran had affected the people who played their roles in it. He didn’t shy away from the complexities.

Another of my favorites was The Uprising of ’34, made with Judith Helfand and Suzanne Rostock. The documentary recovered long-suppressed history of a South Carolina textile strike. As Helfand later recalled it, the process was delicate and slow, a form of organizing. Stoney was able to get people to talk with his combination of sympathetic and careful listening and his understanding of the terror and brutality of the event and its aftermath. Then public TV showed the film nationally—except in South Carolina, where the public TV network was controlled by the scion of one of the textile families. Only upon that executive’s passing was the film finally scheduled.

Learning from George.

Generations of filmmakers and teachers have now benefitted from George’s New York University classes in documentary history. Our students at American University were also lucky to learn from him. Like many others, when I first taught that class, I went to him first to pick his brain and, of course, copy his syllabus.

For years, George Stoney opened our annual conference. We’ll miss him this year, but we were all lucky to have learned from his example. It’s now up to us.