I am writing this column from the annual conference that I attend every year with fellow academics — the University Film & Video Association (UFVA). This year we’re meeting in Burlington, Vermont. Like many schools, my university travel budget is fairly low this year. So this trip is also my vacation.
After years of attending this conference, I now a trustee for the organization’s foundation and must arrive early for meetings. My partner, Ted, has been on the organization's board before and served as conference vice-president, so we’re used to committing at least a week each year to this organization. Ted and I actually met at this conference over a decade ago. It's certainly a kind of anniversary moment for us... With the added bonus of getting to see close friends at it every year, this summer conference is starting to feel more like a family reunion.
But conferences (like family reunions) are not simply about applauding successes in your field or reconnecting with friends. Just as importantly at these meetings, faculty collaboratively investigate conflicts and start to develop solutions. Right now UFVA is facing challenging issues along with the rest of the country — we’re in a recession, our endowment has dropped, job offerings are slim, and we’re trying to keep our pedagogy relevant to students in this new digital age. Faculty are also looking desperately for ways to help students pay their tuition costs. After a few stressful administrative sessions, however, I soon found myself sitting with a group of faculty with more uplifting themes.
UFVA’s Documentary Working Group brought together a number of interesting filmmakers and scholars this week, most notably George Stoney. The ninety-four year old Stoney is the “founder of community media” in this country, which Vermont media activist, Bill Simmon gratefully acknowledged in his panel. A World War II veteran and NYU faculty member, Stoney has mentored and inspired hundreds of documentary filmmakers and activists in the United States and Canada. He walks slowly but without assistance. Stoney told me that he wanted to attend this year's UFVA meeting since his health issues make him worry that it might be his last opportunity to actively participate.
In the 1960's and 70's George Stoney worked actively to get FCC laws passed that require cable companies to supply communities with free access to the media, including equipment, studios and staff. This media access was in exchange for the near monopolistic hold that cable companies retain over media content. Public access television, for all of its “Wayne’s World” stereotypes, is the foundation for community media and one of the clearest precursors to the democratic Youtube. Anyone with interest and a willingness to learn can access their own broadcast platform in order to debate politics, create art or interpret tea leaves, thanks in large part to George Stoney.
In 1953 Stoney produced a well-known documentary film—“All My Babies,” which follows African-American midwife, Mary Frances Hill Coley as she delivers babies. Coley delivered over 3000 babies, of all races, during her career as a midwife in Albany, GA. Stoney mentioned that he had recently attended (and filmed) a reunion surrounding "All My Babies," that included over 150 of the babies Coley had helped to birth. Stoney’s documentary of Coley--now part of the National Film Registry -- was influential for broaching civil rights and women’s rights issues, as well as for expanding the horizons of what an educational documentary can show.
Stoney’s main response to the media work in the panel was to encourage filmmakers to emphasize the local, the specific, and the “unusual” in their work; not the generalizable, the branded, or the ‘same things’ that you see everywhere else. “This is real,” Stoney said of the documentary world. “This is right here….It’s not anywhere.”
I found it inspiring just listening to Stoney’s comments. He is real. He is driven and he is still committed to his belief that a more democratic media will help to make the world a better place, one baby at a time.