George Stoney, Documentary Filmmaker, Mentor, Dies at 96
A longtime personal friend, mentor and teacher, he lived a long, full, rich life. Among his 50 documentaries, All My Babies (1953) for the Georgia Department of Public Health included a live birth to educate black midwives working in rural poverty in the deeply segregated south. I was privileged to travel with George to visit the family of Mary Coley, the midwife featured in the film, and of some of the babies she birthed.
George’s media activism was firmly rooted in community. The NYTimes:
Mr. Stoney had only recently joined the faculty of New York University’s film school in 1971 when he helped found the Alternate Media Center, a university project for training students and community members how to use video cameras, a technology that was new at the time. That project led to his interest in another newly emerging medium — cable television — and the opportunity its vastly expanded spectrum presented for grass-roots filmmaking.
With other media-savvy activists, including his Media Center co-founder, Red Burns, Mr. Stoney helped create the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, which began lobbying industry and government regulatory agencies. If cable companies were going to put their cables beneath or above public streets, they argued, they should be required to give citizens a share of the new cable broadcast spectrum — public access. That requirement was added to federal communications law in 1984.
A few weeks ago friends sang for him at his Patchogue, Long Island, birthday bash. The annual summer gathering brought together family, friends, students and colleagues from around the world. From his hometown obit:
“George Stoney was one of the pioneers of documentary film, bringing his early work and training as a journalist to enrich the genre,” said Jane Daugherty, a family friend who teaches journalism at the University of Miami. “As a friend, more importantly, he was an inspiration: dedicated to social justice and to making public television and his films tools of democracy. He was also an extraordinary teacher at NYU and Stanford and in the larger community of filmmakers. He will be missed.” …
He was born in Winston-Salem in 1916. He graduated from Reynolds High School in 1933 and went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he graduated in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in English and journalism.
“His father was a traveling preacher who did not make a lot of money,” Daugherty said, “so George quite literally worked his way through the University of North Carolina in the 1930s, sometimes sleeping in unheated attics of friends because he could not afford a rooming house or place in a dorm.”
In this 2012 POV interview he articulates his theory of documentary filmmaking, the same one he taught me nearly 30 years ago and the one that I have followed to this day. His legacy lives on in all of his students.