An appreciation for a titan of the documentary form, George Stoney

It was serendipity, though at the time I took it as a an annoying scheduling snafu. I was a student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and wanted nothing more than to throw myself in total production immersion zone: directing, screenwriting, lighting, editing, and putting actual sprockets of film on real cameras. But my first semester in the program, I hit a snag: the only class that would complete my schedule was a lecture series called “The Documentary Tradition.” I was no great fan of documentaries, and my main exposure to them had been through public television. There was lots of reading and viewing of old scratchy black and white laser discs at Bobst Library outside of class. Worst of all, the class focused on documentaries made before 1970. Weren’t all the best docs made in the modern era? But I dutifully showed up the first day of class. I had no choice after all.

There I met George Stoney, one of the best teachers of film I’ve ever encountered and someone many contemporary documentary filmmakers consider the godfather of their craft. The first class broke out 1931’s Man of Aran, and Stoney’s own companion piece How the Myth was Made. From there, the tone was set for a provocative, illuminating, always challenging year. We watched Buñuel’s Land Without Bread to talk about documenting “the other.” The development of faster film stocks, hand-held cameras and sync sound was marked with examples from the early verite tradition, including Chronicle of a Summer and Happy Mother’s Day. And it was in Stoney’s class that I first encountered Anu Kuivalainen‘s Christmas in the Distance, a completely subjective exploration of the frailty of memory, and a film that perfectly anticipated the kind of brilliant experiementation more recently seen in Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.

I stuck around for the second semester of Stoney’s class, which turned into an amazing laboratory that hosted some of the leading contemporary lights of the craft to talk about their films, including D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Danny Schechter, and Susanne Rostock. As great as that semester was, my sense of discovery was the greatest in the deeply historical first semester, via those pre-1970’s films that I formerly eschewed.

In short, Stoney’s class transformed me into a completely different person and spectactor, someone with a sophisticated understanding of the ethics of documentary representation. Someone with an appreciation for the multitude of different forms documentary can take. Someone who’s watched “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” three times. That’s why I was thrilled to see the Museum of Modern Art hosting a tribute to the man this weekend. George Stoney will be on hand to talk about his films and the documentary tradition, and I’m sure dispense some of his decades worth of wisdom garnered at the craft’s front lines. And while it’s definitely not the year-long immersion in the documentary form that I found so inspriring, it just might be the next best thing. If you care at all for documentary, don’t miss this singular opportunity to be schooled by the master.

George Stoney Tribute at MoMA: Feburary 27-28, 2009

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