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Wide Angle 21.2 (1999) 123-125

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Honoring George Stoney

Erik Barnouw

[Figure]   [Figure]   [Figure 1]  

In 1998 George Stoney received the Film Scholarship and Preservation Award given annually by the International Documentary Association (IDA). The award was made at the IDA's annual banquet, held in Hollywood during the Third International Documentary Congress. The presentation was by Erik Barnouw, who had been the first recipient of this award when it was instituted in 1984. In presenting the trophy to Stoney, Barnouw made the following comments.

When George Stoney was a youngster growing up in North Carolina, he alreadyknew about midwives. In early morning or at dusk he sometimes saw a midwife--in crisp white uniform and swinging a black bag--hurrying somewhere to perform her services. A figure of mystery, she stirred the imagination, and he planned some day to write a novel about a midwife. But he did something better: when still in his thirties he produced, wrote, and directed a documentary classic, All My Babies: A Midwife's Own Story.

It was commissioned by the State of Georgia, but it wasn't really the kind of film they expected. It was to be a training film--one that would (as the sponsors explained) improve the work done by the midwives, but would not necessarily approve or promote this kind of service. As the phrasing suggests, the establishment didn't really like its dependence on black midwives, who were [End Page 123] delivering most black babies in southern states. Many people assumed that before long, the midwife would be a thing of the past, and all babies would enter the world via antiseptic hospitals, ushered in by doctors and nurses. Meanwhile, they had to make the best of what they had--the midwife.

George Stoney, preparing for his film, chose as his central figure a midwife called Mary Coley, or "Miss Mary." For days he joined Miss Mary on her rounds, and observed her extraordinary influence in the homes they visited. Because she came at a time of much hope and fear, her every word counted. Stoney came to admire Miss Mary, and in his film she emerges as one of the towering figures of the documentary tradition. Strongly influenced by the Italian neorealist movement, the film has an epic quality, and one would not readily think of it as a training film, but it certainly trained--unforgettably.

All My Babies turned out to be the springboard for an extraordinary career for Stoney--as producer, teacher, and statesman of the media world. Travels sponsored by the State Department have taken Stoney and his films to some twenty countries. Most of his films have dealt with social change; many, like All My Babies, were made in emotionally charged environments. Stoney's ability to work in such situations, always with tact and empathy for all concerned, has been remarkable. This won him, in 1968, an invitation from Canada to become the first executive producer of the film board's Challenge for Change program. Here again he had to work amid social crosswinds, especially those involving native Americans. One of the results was the deeply moving You Are on Indian Land. It was typical of George that he arranged for a young Indian to direct the film. Again and again he has used his position as producer to bring others into the limelight. Thus TheUprising of '34, a look back at a painfully remembered textile strike, was co-directed by his student Judith Helfand. And the joyous The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time!, a retrospective, directed by his student, Jim Brown. Joyousness is something of a habit with George Stoney. He deals in social change, which may sound grim, but in Stoney's hands can mean a grand adventure. Watch out for his next, Paolo Freire in Action, a celebration of the Brazilian educator and his famous work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And be prepared for joy. [End Page 124]

At New York University, where he has been based for many years, Stoney was co-founder of the Alternate Media Center, where he pioneered the use...


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