George Stoney, a man who made a difference

George Stoney was 96 when he died this summer but he was still teaching at NYU in the spring. I think of his life as exemplary. New York Times

I audited his documentary film course at NYU. He said little during class, preferring to have visitors show what they were working on and take credit for their work directly in the viewing. Visitors included D. A. Pennebaker, director of Don’t Look Back, the seminal Bob Dylan documentary, and many of his former students including Jim Brown, who had gone on to create important films.

Beginning in his twenties, Stoney worked on issues of social justice. He was with Gunnar Myrdal in the 1930s when Myrdal was conducting research on the “race” question which would grow into the civil rights movement. Stoney was on hand for the filming of the The Plow that Broke the Plains, a bit of propaganda to prevent further dust bowls in the 1930s. He studied the labor movement, midwives, and produced the movie about the Weavers, Wasn’t that a Time.

One of my favorite movies he made is How the Myth Was Made, a probing, not irreverent look at Flaherty’s Man of Aran. Flaherty is credited with beginning ethnographic documentaries (starting with Nanook of the North). Stoney went back to the places where the Man of Aran was made along the rugged coast of Ireland, and examined what was real and what was invented for the service of the story of these hardscrabble fishing farmers. This was a question Stoney brought up in class. What did the filmmaker owe to his subject? Here he is talking about the ethics of documentaries, and re-enactments, just three years ago.

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I feel lucky to have known such a humble but great man.


About Patricia Markert

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