An Interview with George Stoney

Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsSturken, Marita
SourceAfterimage, Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY (1984)
Full Text: 

As a community and media activist, a professor of film and video, and a maker of a great many films and numerous videotapes, George Stoney is one of the most vocal and influential advocates of the use of video as a social tool, today. Born in 1916, Stoney began his career as a journalist and began working in film as a director and writer after serving as a photo intelligence officer in World War II. He joined the Southern Educational Film Service in 1946 and formed his own company, George C. Stoney Associates, in 1950. For 20 years, Stoney made some 40 sponsored social and educational documentaries, including the well-known All My Babies (1952) about midwifery.

In 1968 Stoney was invited by Frank Spiller of the National Film Board of Canada to become executive producer of the Challenge for Change program, which was begun in 1966 to create films and later videotapes about the social concerns of various Canadian communities. In 1970 he returned to New York to serve for two years as the chairperson of the Undergraduate Division at New York University (NYU) where he has since taught film and video. In 1972 Stoney and Red Burns founded the Alternate Media Center in Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and in 1976 he was one of the founding members of the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers (NFLCP), an advocacy association for public access and community programming on cable television. He is presently one of the most outspoken proponents of public access on cable. Throughout his varied career, Stoney has always remained a spokesman of social justice and the rights of individuals. He has always worked in collaboration with others and will rarely take individual credit for a work.

This interview represents an edited transcript of three conversations in August and September 1983 and includes Stoney’s additions and corrections.

Marita Sturken: Can you explain tome how the use of video came about in the Challenge for Change program? Did it precede your arrival?

George Stoney: It was simultaneous. I went up there in 1968 when the portapaks were just coming out. I had used the Ampex video rigs in 1965 and 1966 when I worked at Stanford, but they were so clumsy and full of bugs that I got terribly frustrated with them. When I got to the Film Board, a group wanted to use video and I had to approve the budget. I was so skeptical that I said, “OK, but only so long as you make a film about the experiment.” Colin Low, the philosophical father of the Challenge for Change program, from the Film Board had conducted an initial experiment on Fogo Island in Newfoundland from which we worked out a lot of theory. But we found that in film the turnaround lime was much too long, and the use of complicated film equipment caused the whole process to be dominated by a professional crew. So the idea that people could do their own recording themselves had not yet evolved. Then Bonnie Klein and Dorothy Henaut, with some help from others working in Challenge for Change, decided we should try and experiment with half inch video. The old CV Sony portable video decks were just coming into Canada at that time, and they decided to use them to see if ordinary people could use the technology on their own. An experiment was launched in Montreal with a French Canadian community group, and we made a film about it called VTR-St. Jacques. This film records, quite honestly, the experiences the people of the St. Jacques neighborhood had using video in 1969. I have used that film ever since because it makes clear many of the problems and limitations groups have been having when using video as a tool for social change: the cost of the equipment as opposed to other priorities, the time it takes, how it can distract attention from more important things. Nevertheless, the St. Jacques experiment convinced me that video could be a powerful tool if used with caution and thoughtfulness.

MS: Were there problems in getting the video circulated and seen?

GS: At that time very few people had video equipment. The editing and copying of tapes was very difficult, and there was no video projection. There was no 3/4 inch cassette distribution pattern such as we have now.

MS: Was there cable television in Canada?

GS: Oh yes, that’s where I got into cable television. We were looking for ways to get the Challenge for Change material seen. I found that many Film Board distribution people had developed such fixed and out-of-dale ideas they could not handle our material property. They were convinced, for example, that theaters would not show something that had been on television, and that network television would not use anything that had been used locally. I said, “Look, this is information. It’s important. We are going to get it out anyway we can.” Even in 1968-69 about a quarter of the people in Canada had cable. It came there very early, partly because many people lived in remote areas and needed a stronger signal but mostly because they wanted the American programming. We found that cable operators had systems with eight to 12 channels, and usually they were only using three or four of them. There were no satellites to make Home Box Office, distant signal importation, or all of that possible, so they had blank channels and many were happy to have us till them. We began with the really small mom-and-pop operators who would help us put in little studios with portable cameras and often with high school volunteers as crews. We found some local shows already going, usually very primitive stuff, but it was there. So they would run our Challenge for Change tapes, and sometimes we did live shows as well. You see, the difference in the Challenge for Change program, at least in the beginning, was that the films and tapes were not important in themselves. It was the process and the ideas.

MS: How would you define the basis for Challenge for Change?

GS: As we developed it at the Film Board, it was asocial contract between the people who were in charge of a government program-an agency or a social service-and the people who were the recipients of that program or service, designed to find out how they felt about what was being done and what they would like to see changed. Out of our work social theorists later tried to develop an approach and mechanism that would be applied to a vast array of social conflict situations. But in my experience it is limited to places where the people who are in power are willing to listen and respond. You see, when I go to somebody with my camera and microphone and I say, “Look, give me your soul,” I’ve got to be able to say, “Look, it’s going to help you, not hurt you.” If you tell me what you think, it is my obligation as the intermediary to go to the authorities, get them to look at it, and respond. If I can’t persuade either party to live up to their part of the contract, it won’t work. Now the advantage we had at the Film Board is that we worked through a highly respected government agency, cooperating with eight leading government departments, so we could pretty well guarantee some kind of response. People have misunderstood the Challenge for Change approach because they don’t understand that a response is part of the bargain. I have not found this technique working very well in the U.S. There are not many countries in the world where one can make such a bargain, so the concept is not as transportable as people seem to think.

MS: In the Challenge for Change program did you train people to use the equipment themselves?

GS: Yes, we did. In some units we trained using film, but mostly it was videotape. I think one of the more successful video projects was in Drumheller, Alberta in 1969. In each case there was a community organizer who was the catalyst, and in Drumheller it was Tony Karsh, an excellent fellow who used videotape himself and trained other people to use videotape. About 1904, coal was discovered in the Drumheller area located about 80 to 90 miles northeast of Calgary. By the 1940s there were 40 some mines, and a booming economy. By 1969 only one mine was left, and it was about to close. In the moldering little mining camps around Drumheller lived a lot of old people and single mothers with lots of kids. There were also a lot of economic, social, and health problems. For example, people were moving their privies all around and the Red Deer River was getting terribly polluted. Yet the government wasn’t going to give money for a sewer system to people who hadn’t given any indication that they were likely to pull together to help build it. Challenge for Change was called in there by the mayor because he wanted to get people stirred up. So, Tony came and started going from house to house with the video equipment, recording oral history and getting to know people. There were groups of immigrants who had come over since 1904 from all parts of Europe. All had had the same kind of experience, but they had kept to themselves and they didn’t know each other very well. Tony would make a tape of one person and show it to the next person.

MS: And they were receptive to being taped?

GS: Well sure, a nice young fellow comes in and wants to interview you . .. Later Tony invited them to meetings to see the tapes and discuss their problems. Tony was such a good teacher because when he came into the room with the equipment he looked like he needed help. He would act like he had six thumbs, and before long people would just take the equipment away from him and say, “Tony, let me show you how it works.” Before long he developed really skilled crews. Anyway, he got the people to realize that they had to organize to make successful presentations to the provincial government. They had to show that they were going to be responsible in order to get to the government. And they did get somewhere. Drumheller was one of our better examples. There were others attempts to do something for one-industry towns that were losing their industries, particularly in the North. Most of the experiments were described in the Challenge for Change Newsletter, which Dorothy Henaut did a whale of a good job editing. She decided that it should not be a puff piece for the program but a critical journal which aired a lot of our problems.

MS: At the point that you left the National Film Board in 1970, video must have been well integrated into the program.

GS: I can recall an amusing incident. During the summer before I left, an inspector from the government in Ottawa came down to look at us. He wanted to know what all this expenditure for video equipment was. It wasn’t film and this was supposed to be the Film Board. So I took him into the equipment room and showed him 44 rigs we had just bought all lined up. He said, “Well, how many feet are these going to expose?” I told him that it would probably be more than the Film Board’s whole output, and that we could wipe them and use them again. He just had a fit, and I found many people at the Film Board who felt like he did. Unfortunately, later they got into that mode of thinking even in relation to Challenge for Change, measuring its success by how many films were shown rather than what those film showings accomplished.

MS: Is the Film Board continuing to use video?

GS: I haven’t been to Montreal for at least two years, but I know they are using it for a drama workshop and as a way of preparing themselves to do films. I don’t know that they’re using video’ in the way we used it in Challenge for Change. Until recently, I used to visit the Film Board almost every year to see old friends and new films. People would always take me aside in the cafeteria and say, “George, NFB’s not what it used to be in the old days.” Then I would go to the Friday afternoon screenings and see beautiful new films by people I had never heard of, particularly the Women’s Unit. So I wouldn’t say that the Film Board in general has lost its edge. What I do regret is that what we started so bravely and successfully there, which was the integration of video into the whole process of making films as tools of social change, seems to have been diminished. When I came to the NFB most of the filmmakers were not so much interested in how their audiences perceived their films, as whether or not they won prizes. I required that all of the films in the Challenge for Change program be audience tested in rough cut. Most of the filmmakers just hated that idea. Even in the very well-chosen group of filmmakers, I found at NFB only one in 10 was suitable for our program. There was not much ego gratification in going out and showing a rough cut, seeing the audience respond, and then coming back and recutting it - cutting out all of the little jokes that other filmmakers would love because they didn’t mean anything to the audience and putting in something else that was a little blunter and more didactic because the audience was not getting the point.

MS: You would test films in the communities in which they were made?

GS: Wherever we could. A good example is a film called Up Against the System, which was about the attitude of relief recipients. Terry Filgate was the director and cameraman. He chose to make it in Toronto where he knew there were some strong welfare rights groups. My only admonition was, “Terry, get eye contact, because in my experience if you are looking people in the eye, you can’t pity them, and if we arouse pity, viewers won’t want to get involved. When you talk to people on relief, get their anger and their hurt.” And he did that. He talked from behind the camera so that all of the interviews were directed into the camera. Terry came back and edited a 30 minute rough cut, putting in all of those nice “in” jokes and oblique observations so popular at the Film Board. Then I said, “We’re going to have an audience test,” which Terry understood. Because we didn’t have travel money, I lined up 10 audiences in Montr6al in both French and English communities that were similar to the location in Toronto. After the third screening Terry called me up and said, “George, I don’t need anymore testing. It’s a mess. They are talking about the personalities and not the issues.” So he came back and cut out all of those character-building things and sharpened the issues. We tested it in that form, and it was fine. Before we printed it, I took the cut back to Toronto to show to the Minister of Welfare who had helped us make the film. First, this was to explain to him why we hadn’t used any of the long interview that we had done with him, and second, to make sure that we didn’t have any factual errors. This was not for censorship, but this film was blasting his whole system, and I felt responsible to that. I knew that if we had factual errors, that would give the welfare agencies a chance to get off the hook. In my experience, Canadian government officials are very different from those in the U.S. They tend to be much more responsible and proud to work for their government. Somehow when you criticize them, they feel you are criticizing the government’s program and not their personal program. In this case, the Minister of Welfare looked at the film and said, “Well, I think that you could have spent your 20 odd minutes on the screen to better advantage, but when will it be ready? I would like to have it premier at my next regional conference which will feature sessions on our attitudes toward recipients.” He did use it at his conference where it created something of a sensation, and it was shown at other welfare conferences across the provinces. Then, a friend who worked for Health Education and Welfare (HEW) came up and she invited me to put on a show in Washington. That was a day I won’t forget for a long time. There were 32 middle management people in the room. I began by explaining how the film was made and about the Challenge for Change program, and then screened the film. There was not a peep out of them. When the film was over someone said, “Isn’t it nice that all of these are white people talking about welfare. So often we just hear about blacks on welfare.” Well, I just let that one slide. The next question was, “Why do you make these films? They don’t promote any program.” So I went right back to the basis of the Film Board, which was to introduce Canada to Canadians and the rest of the world. I said, “This is going to tell a great many Canadians how many other Canadians feel.” It didn’t mean anything. The next question was, “Does the government know you are making these films?” I said, “They paid for it. It’s designed for use in their programs.” The final question was, “How long do you think you will get away with it?” Not a single person in that room thought it might be useful to know how recipients of welfare feet. Since I have been back home I have done a number of Challenge for Change type programs, and I don’t think that a single one of them has been more than marginally successful. This is primarily because of the attitude in the U.S. that if somebody criticizes you, they are automatically your enemy, that mutual concern is impossible in a governmental or even an employer-employee situation.

MS: Do you think that is part of the American personality?

GS: It certainly is. I have tried the Challenge for Change approach with a church group in 1972. Jim Brown, Paul Barnes, and I did a film called People on the Move for St. Peter’s in Manhattan, about why the church was moving, and we used the rushes week after week to keep the congregation together during the time that they were preparing to move. (The church was bought by Citibank, and the original structure replaced by the Citicorp building.) As soon as the ministry got what they wanted, they didn’t seem to want to hear anymore from the congregation. I found they were promising people one thing and then doing another. For instance, we recorded the minister promising some old ladies, who were very concerned about losing the old church, that the new chapel was going to be a model of old St. Peter’s. That very afternoon he met with Louise Nevelson over plans to make it a fashionably modern chapel. I am going to keep trying Challenge for Change in the U.S.-this next spring in Atlanta-but understandably I am becoming more skeptical.

MS: I know that quite often in your films you used a narrative form in a documentary format as a means of providing information. Would you ever consider using that kind of format in video?

GS: I don’t see why not. I regard video and film as interchangeable. You see, one of the reasons I got so excited about video first was the cost. Now, of course, post-production costs have grown so that video often costs as much as film, but in the beginning the cost difference was important. In my experience as a maker of sponsored documentaries, I found I was making films for people like doctors, nurses, and social workers who should have been making their own communications. Filmmaking was so cumbersome and expensive that they were having me translate for them. There are certain advantages to that, but there are also advantages in having them more directly in charge-as they could be with video. Also, we were constantly making films that weren’t local enough because we needed to sell these expensive products in other places. I had come to realize that my ego was very involved in the production. Although I was supposed to have great social purpose, in general I wanted people to look at my film, sit back, and say, “That was a good film.” Fortunately in video I have never developed this attitude. I am very happy when I use video if I never show the whole piece. I try to start a dialogue right from the beginning with the monitor. In fact, depending on the audience, I might start a tape halfway from the end. I’ll freeze-frame, make a remark, or zip ahead to confirm something. If I haven’t gotten a dialogue going between the audience and the tape after three or four minutes, I haven’t done a good job. Now, video art is very different, but in social situations, I think of it primarily as an aide.

MS: It seems like you approach it in a less linear way than film.

GS: Yes, and they can be interchangeable. When you see video in a darkened room with a big projector, you get the same response as film. It is the ambience of the viewing situation that makes a difference. I think that when we get good definition and big-screen projection-not the Advent projector we have now-it will all look like film. When you take a film and translate it to video and show it on a monitor, people respond to it as they do to television. One of the hardest things to overcome in terms of using video usefully on television, cable or otherwise, is the terrible television watching habits that all of us have developed. And we blame television instead of ourselves; it’s like blaming sugar for obesity.

MS: When you came back to the US to teach at NYU, was the department primarily film at that time?

GS: It was completely film. I came back in the fall of 1970 to be chairperson of the Undergraduate Division, a job I did for two years. There was a little video presence on the campus before I got there. Jackie Park, of the NYU film faculty was involved, and Bobby Mariano-who is now an official in the cable industry-was student leader of a half inch portapakbased organization called Videotheque. That fall we started what I believe were the first formal classes in which video was used.

MS: You must not have had very much equipment if you started immediately.

GS: We had, per student, probably as much as we have now. There was equipment on campus which came from student activity funds. At that time there were all kinds of revolts on campus, so the attitude was keep the students quiet and give them some toys. Videotheque was a place where students from all departments could come in and learn to use the equipment. Mostly they used it for social concerns, particularly the relationship between the students and the administration. Bobby Mariano was very active in that, and Maxi Cohen got involved soon afterwards. That fall we started a class called Video in the Community. Jackie and I taught workshops, and we’d get into the community with our portapaks.

MS: How did the Alternate Media Center come about?

GS: The Alternate Media Center got under way in 1971 with a grant from the John and Mary Markle Foundation, which had recently decided to turn from support for medical education and make a major commitment to media. Both Red Burns and I were thinking about experimenting with the use of video in closed-circuit as one variety of “alternative media,” but the Markle Foundation got more and more interested in cable and pushed us in that direction. We had some opportunities to do cable, but we also did a lot of training of people locally in half inch video for closed circuit use because in the early 1970s, so few people in Manhattan could get cable.

MS: Was this in the community or with students?

GS: We operated in the community. In fact, the students would come in only to assist us in one way or another. We tried to prevent the Center from being a way of supplementing the school. I knew that trap and Red caught onto it very soon. We had a number of very good people. Joel Gold worked with us, and Woody Vasulka was our engineer for awhile.

MS: Were you involved when the FCC held hearings in Washington, D.C. about access in 1971?

GS: We didn’t testify in front of the FCC, but Red and I went down and we showed the first portapak to the engineers. I think our visit had a good deal to do with the fact that they didn’t require broadcast standards for access. That meant that you could shoot with a portapak, which opened up all kinds of possibilities.

MS: Did you begin programming for the public access channels in New York City immediately? [In July 1970, under the Lindsay administration, New York City granted 20-year noncompetitive franchises to Teleprompter Corporation, now Group W Cable, (for upper Manhattan) and Sterling Information Services Ltd., better known as Manhattan Cable Television (for lower Manhattan). These franchises stipulated the provision of public access channels beginning July 1, 1971. The introduction of the concept of public access into cable television regulation was part of an initial attempt by the FCC to establish diversity in cable and to prevent it from becoming a copy of commercial broadcasting. After several years of consideration and a year of public hearings, the FCC issued regulations, effective March 31, 1972, which required every cable system with 3,500 or more subscribers to originate local programming and to provide “one dedicated, noncommercial public access channel available without charge at all times on a first-come, first-served non-discriminatory basis.” Since its initial strict stance toward the cable industry (which also included prohibiting the networks from cable industry (which also included prohibiting the networks from cable television ownership), the FCC has gradually been relaxing its rules point by point. In 1975, however, it was the Supreme Court which dealt a major blow to access regulators. In the case of the FCC vs Midwest Video, the court ruled that the FCC lacked the authority to issue regulations that, in effect, reduced cable television to the status of a common carrier. The Supreme Court ruling, however, did not signal an end to public access cable. While the FCC cannot now require access, state and municipal governments can. At least for the time being. In June 1983 the U.S. Senate passed S. 66, a bill which is intended to “eliminate government regulation in order to prevent the imposition of an unnecessary economic burden on cable systems in their provision of service to the public.” While S. 66 does not require public access channels, it does allow that they may be mandated or offered by the cable company. Under consideration now in the House of Representatives is a slightly modified version of S. 66, H.R. 4103, more commonly known as the Wirth Bill since it is sponsored by Representative Timothy Wirth of Colorado, the chair of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee. The Wirth Bill gives more authority to municipalities which require public access channels and provides for leased access. However, its provisions covering “leased access” are so full of exceptions they are useless. The recision of cities’ right to regulate rates makes their power to enforce requirements of the franchises (i.e., for access) almost nor-existent. A vote is expected on the bill in early 1984.]

GS: The channels were there and we put some of the first tapes on.

MS: What kind of tapes were those?

GS: Our first programming was about Washington Heights in the Teleprompter area because that’s where the concentration of cable subscribers were located. We wanted to see if people would respond to a different kind of television, so instead of trying to make our stuff look like conventional programming, we just had video crews go up there and say, “Hey man, what’s happening?” and record their response. It was all very laid back. Phyllis Chinlin and Joel Gold were very active AMC staffers at that time. They did a whole series of tapes about people protesting to get a stop light. We put the unedited tapes directly on cable as well as having community playbacks. There was a fascinating tape called Blacks Respond to the Riots (1972), sparked by an item in the New York Times about blacks and Hispanics having a fight at 155th St. the night before. Joel went up there by himself and stopped somebody on the street and said, “Hey man, what’s happening?” One man starts talking, telling what he knows, and people gather around. The next person takes the microphone and the next. Than a wonderful crazy guy starts spinning a big tale and everybody else corrects him. Finally, a young guy from the Catholic school nearby tells them what really happened. When the tape is through you have a feeling, not that you have learned exactly what happened the night before, but that you have learned so much about the dynamics of this neighborhood, that you know it’s a neighborhood worth keeping. I think the tape ran as two unedited half hours and we repeated it every day for a week. We found that people often watched it two or three times. Phyllis Chinlin went up to talk to people about relief conditions in the neighborhood. Now, Phyllis looks like your proverbial upper-middle-class Californian, which she is, and she never pretended to be anything else. But I think because she didn’t intrude, people just gave her their souls. For example, a social worker told her exactly what the system was really like. When Phyllis brought it back, I remember we whistled: “Have you thought what is this going to do to that woman if we put it on cable?” So, we called the woman up and asked her, “Do you really want us to run it?” She said, “Please do. I have been trying to get up the courage to quit.” It ran on cable and she did quit.

George Stoney