Wide Angle 21.2 (1999) 71-86
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How the Myth Was Deconstructed
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George Stoney's How the Myth Was Made points up some of the differences between the old and new documentaries. The film was motivated, Stoney relates,by his observation, while teaching at NYU, "that most of my students--all children of the sixties and cinéma vérité--are so dominated by that genre of filmmaking that they find it hard to open their minds to any other approach." As a result, "they miss the power and the poetry of the earlier films while they fret about the veracity of details." 1
During the past half-century, George Stoney has made over fifty documentaries, none of which achieved canonical status. All My Babies, a sponsored training film for African-American midwives, which most unusually won a general prize at an early Edinburgh Film Festival, comes closest; but between it and the prize- winning film The Uprising of '34 in 1995 there are few titles either in circulation or cited in the literature. Only The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time!, a collective portrait of the engagé folk group which has become a PBS perennial, and How the Myth Was Made, a study of the 1934 Flaherty classic Man of Aran, are exceptions.
Yet Stoney's importance to the development of documentary in North America cannot be denied and rests on far more than these titles. As a productive filmmaker, as a teacher and, above all, as executive producer of the Challenge for Change/Pour une société nouvelle program at the National Film Board of Canada between 1968 and 1970 and as the founder of the Alternate Media Center at [End Page 71] New York University in 1971, Stoney has played a major agenda setting role in all North American debates about documentary, its forms, its ethics, and its social function. Now that the four-decade dominance of cinéma vérité (which is better described in this context as "direct cinema") falters, it becomes ever clearer that Stoney's preoccupations and concerns raise questions more difficult and more durable than those which fueled the creation of that new approach to documentary in the sixties. In his long, fertile career, Stoney has offered no more significant a statement for his alternative vision of the nature of documentary than How the Myth Was Made. Whatever his reasons for making it, this film has emerged as a key text for the whole Stoney documentary agenda.
In 1976, with his ex-student Jim Brown as co-director, Stoney returned to the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland to make a documentary about Robert Flaherty's feature film Man of Aran which had been shot there four decades earlier. Stoney knew the island well not least because, in a curiouscoincidence, his ancestors had emigrated from there to theUnited States. Flaherty's film created a picture of grinding, if picturesque, poverty on a rocky Atlantic outcrop where even the fields had to be laboriously hand- made out of seaweed and thin soil and fishing was a desperate, dangerous business. Although produced by Michael Balcon, a major figure in the British featurefilm industry, this film was nevertheless not a fiction. It was entirely shot and (as was Flaherty's wont) processed on location. It involved no actors but used islanders. It contained no drama other than that arising from the people's struggle to survive in a [End Page 72] harsh environment. As in Nanook of the North (1921), Flaherty applied his pioneering insight that entertainment narrative norms could be met by crafting a story out of footage of the everyday. In short, Man of Aran was a documentary. It existed exactly in "the gap between life as lived and life as narrativized," identified by Bill Nichols as docu-mentary's central space. 2
However, even at the time, question marks were raised over the status of the film. For example, the central "family" was no such thing. Maggie...