George Stoney Visits American University

edited by Michael T. Miller and Maura Ugarte
A Documentary Filmmaker’s Relationship to Their Subject

I think the first thing to take into consideration is: Why are they in the film in the first place? What’s in it for them? And can you persuade them that what you want is also what they want? And is that strong enough so that when they see the film with other people they can deal with that audience’s response. Filmmakers say, “Oh, well we showed them the film before it was released.” But did they see it with an audience? Did they know the resonance afterwards?

A good example is one from a program I directed called Challenge for Change at the National Film Academy. It was a program designed to be a bridge between government agencies and people in need. Before I got there, they made a beautiful film called Things I Cannot Change. Tanya Ballantyne made this beautiful, beautiful film about an Anglo family in a Montreal slum; a multi-problem family to quote the social workers. The husband was somewhat of an unemployed drunk and they were having a crisis (it was a verite film, so you always have to have a crisis) and the crisis was that the mother was going to the hospital to have her tenth child and the father was looking after the family. So it was the story of the father and the new baby coming. When you first see that family you think, “Oh my god- they need another child like they need another hole in their heads!” But by the time the baby is brought back by the mother, the family has become so warm in anticipation that you offer applause.

Well, that family saw that film for the first time on television! The neighbors called them up and said, “You’re on television!” So they had to move out of the neighborhood —partly because they were Anglos in a French community but also because they were ashamed of what had appeared in the film.

I remember writing in our Challenge for Change Newsletter, “This will never happen again.” So Ballantyne (the director) came in and I said, “Did you ever talk to the family about why the film was being made? They were prejudiced and backdated, but perhaps if you had explained to them why you were making the film they would have become more willing participants. In addition, you could have shown them the film early on and garnered their support. You show it to them as a rough cut, as a final cut and then you have them see it with their family and they get used to seeing the images on the screen, it’s not a shock.”

When someone photographs you and you see yourself, how do you feel?

[student answers that they feel awkward]

Exactly. But if you see it over and over again you get used to it. First they get used to it…then you say, “Ok, who would you like to have see this film?” They call friends and neighbors and it becomes a public screening. Next thing you know, they are part of your advocacy group.

All of documentary filmmaking has a seductive quality, I mean the director or producer’s got to be a seducer of some kind. But when does seduction become lovemaking? When the other party is really participating perhaps?…I hope that’s not too graphic for American University!

Documentary Ethics in Practice

I am often asked to lecture about documentary ethics. Documentary ethics is not something that’s written down – it’s something you feel. You learn ethics when you’ve shot some great material, but you realize that your subject is a real person, and begin to question the ethics of how you got these shots, and whether you see the resonance of life. That’s when you really learn about ethics, when you have to put it into practice. That’s why I don’t like to lecture about ethics. I like students to experience filmmaking. I think if you’re making films about real people and real situations, you have an obligation to do no harm. That’s very different from the dramatic director whose hired actors.

An example of an ethical documentary is a film that was just recently released about a writing and drama group at Sing Sing prison- it’s called Getting Out. It’s a film that both the filmmakers and the subjects are very proud of. The prisoners would love to have their families come and see the film because it shows them as real human beings. But you won’t see it on PBS. I showed it to POV, (where several of my films have been sold) and before they looked at it they asked, “what are they in for?”
I answered “you know they’re felons but that’s not the point of the film.”
“Won’t work,” they said, “you’ve got to start with that.”

I showed it to Frontline—”What are they in for?” I responded the same way, claiming that the reason for their sentences was not the point of the film. I got a five-minute lecture from the executive saying, “You are denying people the facts that they need for their own safety.” They want to label these people. Thank God it’s out to post-incarceration organizations- they’re using it because they find that even though you know these people are felons, you see them as human beings. It changes the audience’s mind about people in jail.

The second film they’re making called Staying Out, which follows several of these fellas who have been released and we see how these talented people do after they are out. I wanted to make my point explicit, so I talked to the superintendent of the Sing Sing prison. We wanted to conduct an interview with him, but he’s so much under the thumb of Albany and the state government of New York that it took three months to finally get clearance. I said I wanted to interview in a place that speaks to this. Well, Sing Sing is in Ossining, New York, which has a tourist board because tourists are interested in Sing Sing. They can’t take people to Sing Sing because it’s a maximum-security prison, so they actually built a little museum in the town center where they have so-called typical cells. They have the old electric chair. They have pictures of the worst of the criminals. They have a display of knives created by the prisoners and so-forth and that’s just what the public wants to see. So I had the superintendent of Sing Sing sitting in front of one of those cells, and in effect, this is what the public sees. No matter how these guys prepare to get out, they’re all guilty. That’s what we’re trying to say with this film.

Active vs. Passive Audience Members

So when you’re dealing with a subject like that, remember that there is a resonance if your film’s any good; if your films actually get shown. So often we make films, they get shown in festivals, the more and more they get shown at festivals, the more and more the audience formed becomes us and maybe you hit PBS and then get five phone calls. What I try to do now—that I have a university salary so I can afford to do this, I don’t have to make my money out of filmmaking—is to make films that mean something so that when shown in groups, they have some effect. Give me ten people who are interested in my subject matter or want to do something about it and throw them in the audience. Ten people who will talk after about what we do and I’ll swap that for a thousand people coming into the theater and seeing it passively. That’s the kind of filmmaking I want to get involved in.

Michael Moore

[Question from the audience] You mentioned reflexivity being symptomatic in the seventies but I think we’ve come full circle where you have documentarians like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock with these big oversized personalities and what they’re really filming are people reacting to them. Do you find that your students at NYU are drawn to that kind of documentary filming, where they’ve got a strong central personality and they’re the star? [George Stoney responds] Well it’s popular to have contempt for Michael Moore. I remember when I first saw a Michael Moore film at 10pm showing in a crowded theater where I knew a lot of young people would be. I think my companion and I were the only people over thirty in the audience. He really carried the place. We like Michael Moore because he thumbs his nose at things we’d like to thumb our noses at. That’s cheap and easy. People ask what I think about Michael Moore and I have no initial reactions. He’s a pretty clumsy filmmaker but I’m glad he’s on my side. I just wish he were a little more careful with his facts, but by the time he made Columbine he was. That’s a pretty strong film. And of course what it did for the people who watch the box office, people were much, much more willing to consider the documentaries after that.

Flaherty and Poetic Filmmaking

[Question from the audience]
It said in the film(How the Myth Was Made: A Study of Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran) that Flaherty was a poet of the screen. It actually said that he was the first and last. Could you describe the details in what separated his films from the vast majority of others to classify it as poetry?

[George Stoney responds]
I see fewer and fewer films where the beauty of the scene is part of the essence of the film. Most verite films don’t use composition, they don’t use lighting, framing, all of those kinds of things to enhance the subject matter. They think subject matter doesn’t need it. All too often, and I’ve done this so often recently, we just have a well lit interview…but where do you go from there? How do you get the essence of life around people? I think a good example of the best of that is in a new Canadian film called Shameless . It’s a reflective film because the director (Bonnie Sherr Klein) did it herself (she’s severely handicapped by a stroke). Each of the characters is gracefully introduced and it’s very beautifully constructed. I recommend it very highly.

But as for Flaherty- I think it’s explained beautifully in a DVD of the Louisiana Story, Flaherty’s last film. Ricky Leecock, the young assistant to Flaherty at the time, describes how they went out and shot a cobweb and how long they looked at that cobweb and how many times they photographed it to get it just right. You should get hold of that DVD because that makes it very clear what that is. He had a poet’s eye.

Great Filmmaking

Something about the image on that screen causes us to have an emotional response. If it doesn’t, it’s not worth doing. In journalism you’re using words, you’re using verbal metaphors. The best of film uses visual metaphors. But we don’t recognize what limited a medium it is and how challenging it can be. For example, it’s a two-dimensional medium for a three-dimensional world. So you’re constantly having to use angles, constantly using shadows, you have to get a feel for it. It’s a two sense medium for a five sense world…To excite touch and smell and taste, that’s part of the artistry of making a film, to get all of life up there- and this is an essence of great filmmaking. It’s to give you, the audience, that completely extraordinary experience. That’s why it’s worth it and that’s why it’s so much fun to do. And that’s why we keep going back and back and back to the screen.