The San Jose (CA) native, New York City-based filmmaker Matt Wolf is no stranger to having to comb through archival footage for his documentaries. His film Wild Combination, about the cult avant-garde musician and disco producer Arthur Russell, was set primarily in Russell’s heyday of the ’70s and ’80s, while Teenage was about early youth culture and the birth of teenagers. His recent film Spaceship Earth was about the controversial Biosphere 2 experiment in the late 1980s, while his short Bayard & Me was about the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin.
But the former Guggenheim Fellow really plunged an unimaginably huge archival project when he decided to make a film about Marion Stokes, a Philadelphia activist who became a wealthy recluse in her later years and recorded American television 24 hours a day for over 30 years. As seen in Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, spanning 70,000 videotapes that captured revolutions, lies, wars, triumphs, catastrophes, bloopers, talk shows, and commercials, Stokes’ visionary and maddening project nearly tore her family apart.
“Wolf’s strange, sad and finally exhilarating portrait is one of radical consumerism turned into a searchable legacy—the ‘viewer as activist,'” wrote Robert Abele in the L.A. Times. “A really fascinating documentary,” adds Amy Nicholson of KPCC public radio.
Wolf talked to us about how he undertook this incredibly daunting project and focused on the family story at the center of it.
Why first led you to want to make a film about Marion Stokes?
I make films that utilize huge amounts of archival footage. So when I learned about Marion Stokes’ collection I was astounded—a lone individual created an unprecedented archive that contains virtually everything and anything. The challenge of grappling with that scope of material appealed to me, so I reached out to Marion’s son Michael Metelits and went to visit him in Philadelphia. Michael was living in Marion’s former apartment in a fancy part of the city in one of the most lavish apartment complexes. That took me by surprise, but when I entered Marion’s apartment, I found hundreds of Macintosh computers in their original boxing. Now I was really shocked!
I went across the street with Michael and Marion’s former secretary Frank Heilman to the restaurant where Marion would have her daily martini, and as we were talking they started to cry. I realized that this isn’t just a story about an unprecedented archive, it’s also an emotionally intense family story.
I wanted to make a portrait of an uncompromising, radical activist who sought to protect the truth by archiving everything that was said and shown on television. I also wanted to reflect on the personal toll that kind of commitment takes on loved ones. I realized that insight and dysfunction can co-exist. When Marion was alive, many people saw her project merely as the hoarding obsession of a pathological amateur historian.
In fact, Marion was driven by a prescient awareness of the burgeoning 24-hour news cycle, and how television news and the predilections of its producers shape public opinion. Now in this era of so-called “fake news,” the truth is under attack and people need to be resourceful, vigilant, and committed like Marion was to protecting access to solid information to make informed decisions about our future.
Who do you think should see Recorder the most?
I hope the film reaches people who see some part of themselves in Marion and her project. Marion was an extreme and uncompromising individual, but she believed in free and open communication, creating space for contrasting perspectives, and she dedicated her life to finding meaning in a society that’s increasingly inundated with noise.
As an African American woman, she was often excluded from established institutions, so she pursued her remarkable project privately and on her own terms. As a former librarian, she also believed in the importance of preserving knowledge, and she recognized that the past represents itself in startling ways.
I think this film will resonate with journalists, scholars, filmmakers, artists, and people who produce, consume, and support public media. I also hope the film resonates with African American women because Marion is a singular and fierce character who is rarely represented on television.
How did you handle the enormous task/challenge of going through Marion Stokes’ archives?
We had to index Marion’s entire collection of 70,000 VHS tapes! Being a librarian Marion, fortunately, wrote the date, time period, and networks she recorded on the spine of her tapes. Sometimes she recorded other “metadata” like Oprah, Jesse Jackson, the MOVE Bombings, etc. We rigged a camera on a conveyor belt and took photographs of the spines from each of her tapes and put out a call for volunteers to begin logging. Miraculously over 50 volunteers around the world signed up and through Dropbox and a shared Google spreadsheet we started to transcribe all the metadata that Marion left behind.
One volunteer, Katrina Dixon, became our full-time archivist and completed a spreadsheet with 70,000 entries. That’s how we were able to search for specific stories and historical events on tapes that we digitized for the film. We only digitized 100 of 70,000 tapes, but Marion recorded in extended play, so these tapes are 6-8 hours long. In the end, we had approximately 700 hours of footage to work with, which is only a tiny fraction of material in the collection.
How did you get Marion’s family to open up in talking to you about her life?
I’m really grateful for the participation of Marion’s son, her step-daughters, and the dedicated staff who cared for her in the later part of her life. I was open and direct with everyone—I wanted to profile Marion in an honest and fair way, which would recognize the achievement and vision of her project, but also show Marion’s interpersonal shortcomings.
It wasn’t easy being Marion’s family or working for her, but I think it’s helpful, perhaps even cathartic, to find meaning in a difficult family experience. People were very generous with me because I think they believed it would be valuable for people to know Marion’s story and the political ideals that inspired her project.
Going through so much footage had to have been daunting. How did you focus it down or what hard decisions did you have to make?
Sifting through hundreds of hours of television footage, there are of course countless human-interest stories, political threads, and campy commercials that I love. But when working with my editor Keiko Deguchi, we always asked ourselves, “How does the archive point to Marion, and how does Marion point back to the archive.” That’s how we created creative transitions, but it’s also how we used Marion’s lens to narrow the focus of our television footage.
What was the most surprising thing you learned from American news stories you ran across when going through Stokes’ enormous archive?
At one point in the filmmaking process, it became important to not just say that Marion’s collection is important, but to show it. We had the idea to track stories of racially-motivated police brutality. There are so many examples, but I was not surprised to find that many of these news reports reflect the racist bias of the media. Again and again, words like “color blind” were used to describe not only the police, but also the seemingly objective outlets that report on it. It became clear that the violence the media reports on is in fact a reflection of the systemic violence that underpins our society and the media that portrays it. It’s shocking to see how little the media narrative around police brutality has evolved over the past decades. However, at this crossroads in history, I’m hopeful that the mainstream media conversation around racism and police brutality is shifting.
Do you have a favorite moment of your own in Recorder?
My favorite sequence of the film is a short news clip featuring somebody named Bruce Elliott who identifies as an “Anti-Nostalgist.” He appeared on a 1989 episode of the Today show, and staunchly refuted an older generation’s “obsession with the past” that obscures a vision for the future. It’s an example of the strange gems that exist in the deluge of media that washes over us. I tried to find Bruce online to ask him if he still rejects nostalgia, but there were no traces of him. It felt like an ironic confirmation that history is indeed ephemeral, and if we do not commit to preserving the past, so many voices and ideas will be lost in the future.
What are your favorite or most influential documentaries?
One of my favorite documentaries is Arthur Dong’s Licensed to Kill. I saw the film on public television when I was 14-years-old, and I came out the next day. In the 1970s, Dong was attacked by a group of gay bashers in San Francisco. Twenty-seven years later, he set out to find meaning in his own assault by interviewing men convicted of murdering gay men. These shockingly even-tempered and honest conversations from prisons are illustrated with brutal crime-scene imagery. There are no expert commentators and we’re not given the point of view of the victims. Instead, Dong creates an unflinching portrait of homophobic violence, which in turn holds a mirror up to the society that breeds it. Dong’s film not only precipitated my coming out, it also made me want to be a documentary filmmaker.
What other film project(s) are you working on?
My other new film Spaceship Earth is about a controversial 1992 scientific experiment called Biosphere 2, where 8 people lived sealed inside a miniature replica of the planet. These pioneers were trying to prepare for Mars colonization, but they were also learning how to live sustainably on the earth. It’s ironic that their experiment echoes our current experience of being quarantined, but the film is also about the power of small groups to reimagine the world—a task we are all faced with today. I hope that this group’s ambition is inspiring in these uncertain times. The film premiered at Sundance and was recently released on Hulu.