Interview: Matt Wolf on How History is Made with “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”

When the Iran Hostage Crisis gripped the nation in the fall of 1979, Marion Stokes had found a use for her recently acquired VHS tape recorder. She had been suspicious of the media’s coverage of the standoff between America and Iran, bothered years before by what she felt was jingoistic approach they had taken to the Bay of Pigs invasion, and they certainly were producing plenty of material for her to analyze, with the soap opera-like nature of the 444-day conflict leading to the creation of “Nightline,” the first newscast to realize there was a considerable audience for late-night programming. CNN would soon follow, and Stokes stocked up on VHS tapes to capture it all, gradually amassing an archive of over 70,000 tapes that was a better record of what aired over the 30 years she was active than any of the networks that filmed it.

Without context, the boxes of tapes that were left in the wake of Stokes’ death in 2012 were somewhat incomprehensible and certainly unfathomable physically as they were hauled out of her home in Philadelphia, yet Matt Wolf, who previously was undaunted by assembling the lively and comprehensive profile of the American teenager through archival footage in “Teenage,” puts things in perspective with this biography that could be argued is as important as anything Stokes ever committed to tape herself. In “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project,” Wolf traces the life of a woman continually fascinated with the flow of information, from her early days as a librarian who got involved with the socialist party during the 1950s to become an activist invited to speak on the local community TV roundtable “Input” during the 1960s, and while her eventual obsession with tracking the news would keep her largely confined to the home she came to share with “Input” host John Stokes, she would prove to be prophetic about media literacy before such a term even existed, observing from her couch how news narratives took shape and the distance that grows between the facts of a story and how it is spun.

Throughout “Recorder,” Wolf slyly includes clips that have greater relevance now than when Stokes first captured them, illustrating just how powerful the media can be in affirming or reinforcing ideas that might not hold weight otherwise, and simultaneously learns of how Stokes was careful to manage her own image, refusing to adopt TiVo for fear that others would know what she was recording and maintaining a relationship with her family that was often at arm’s length. Showing how she pushed buttons well beyond those on her VCR, Wolf honors Stokes’ desire to question the motives behind what we see, and with the San Francisco-based nonprofit Internet Archive ultimately coming to the rescue of her tapes in order to digitize them for all to use in the future, the film offers a fascinating look at a complicated woman whose simple decision will have an impact on generations to come. As the film makes its way to theaters following its debut earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, Wolf spoke about finding his way into such a timely subject, balancing a personal story with a larger cultural history, and turning low-quality video recorded off a television into something cinematic.

How did this come about?

I make films with a lot of archival material, so when the Internet Archive acquired Marion’s collection, and there was an initial round of press, I thought, “Here’s an archive that has anything and everything,” and the challenge of grappling with that really appealed to me. I tracked down Michael Metelis, Marion’s son, and I went to visit him with my producer Kyle Martin in Philadelphia. When we arrived at Marion’s apartment where Michael was living, we were surprised. It’s a really fancy apartment building and we went upstairs and there were hundreds of Macintosh computers in their original boxing. Of course, we had no idea it was part of this story. And then Michael and Marion’s secretary Frank [Heilman] and Kyle and I went across the street to the restaurant where Marion would have her daily martini. They started to cry and I realized this isn’t just a story about a monumental and unprecedented archive, but it’s also an emotionally intense family story, so I set out to interweave those two things.

In the wake of her passing, was that an interesting position to be in, in terms of being a go-between for the family and the archive?

Our process in indexing Marion’s collection and digitizing tapes, that was kind of its own self-contained thing. The film really has two separate tracks – it’s the family’s story and delving into the possibilities and the significance of the archive. Those two things dovetailed, but the film was made over a series of years, so our relationship with the subjects developed over time, and there were long gaps in the process where we would organize and index a collection and then digitize tapes and then we had to go back and digitize more tapes, so there was a lot of back and forth.

Given the estranged nature of the family, was this difficult to pull together?

It wasn’t easy, but people were very open to the process. When Marion’s tapes were acquired and there was this general enthusiasm about it, I think it caught people in the family by surprise and may have to some extent been a relief to know that the anguish and the pain they went through in their family was not completely in vain. There was some value and meaning in this difficult experience and perhaps that’s why they were open to the process. I also think John Stokes’ children also wanted to bring light to their father who also led a very interesting life as well, so everybody has been really supportive of the film.

Given the timeliness of what Marion’s archive represents as far as preservation of history, were you looking to tell a story like this?

No. When I started the film, Trump hadn’t been elected yet, so this so-called fake news discourse wasn’t part of the public discourse, but of course, once that terminology came around, it became clear that there was an enhanced urgency to Marion’s project. It’s not surprising because she was a very prescient person, and I think she saw patterns in the media and in society and politics that pointed towards our current political crisis vis a vis the media and truth.

Because you work with archives so much, did Marion’s work offer any great revelations as to what’s currently being lost in the modern age?

Currently, I don’t think much is being lost because there’s automation that’s allowing places like the Internet Archive to capture the full flow of television, but what she captured during that time period doesn’t exist anywhere else. Going into the project, I know that nobody saves the full flow of television — the commercials, the local programming, the public service announcements — that stuff is, in some sense, the detritus of popular culture that’s been lost to the trash can of history and that’s kind of what appealed to me from the get-go. Just scratching the surface, it became clear just how much meaning there is in all of that material, not just the epoch-defining news stories across networks, but all the ancillary material that’s considered marginal or human interest, it tells us so much about who we were, but also how the world was shaped today, whether it’s our values and tastes and aspirations or the political condition of our present moment that’s so influenced by news producers.

There’s a specific moment that captures that so well when you use a split-screen to show how four different networks aired coverage of 9/11 and you see the evolution of how that story would be told, amidst all the markers of what would regularly be aired. How did that sequence come together?

I wanted to use the archival footage in a number of ways – to go deeper into one news story that was story-relevant like the Iran Hostage Crisis or use it like video art sometimes, compiling images of the moon or sunrises or flowers, but also to create an unconventional timeline of history through this period. But what was so unique about this collection is this ability to capture the flow of television, to see how different networks present events in real time, so I wanted to [look at] what was probably the most media historic event of the 21st century so far, something basically all of us of a certain age recall experiencing via television. I think that sequence is so visceral for people because it brings you back to that moment where you first experience this world-changing event and it’s startling and a little uncanny how inane and mundane day to day programming on television is and what it looks like in real time [as] history comes into focus.

Obviously, Marion was recording everything, but could you actually get an idea of her through what she was collecting?

Sometimes it was interesting because she wrote what you might call metadata on the spines of every tape – the date, the time period, the network, but [also] other information like “Oprah” or “Jesse Jackson” or “The Move Bombings,” and Oprah and Jesse Jackson are two of the figures in media and politics that she tracked over the course of the decades. Sometimes she earmarked British comedy. She wrote “The Simpsons” on one tape…you get a sense that she had a sense of humor as much as a pointed interest in news and history-making events.

In those recreations of her living quarters, did you base it off of pictures or memory?

There’s very few pictures from the inside of Marion’s home, so I relied on the family to give me a sense of what it looked like and what it felt like inside. I was actually able to borrow some of Marion’s original artwork that was on the wall from Michael and he had [also] held onto some furniture and some computers and we used every bit of information and reference we could find. We recreated a painting of Marion that she had in her home and our production designer Jesika Farkas did a wonderful job modeling all the furniture off of the photos we could find. We also used some of the actual vintage Macintosh computers. It’s a documentary job, in a sense, recreating a space based on all the information that’s available.

In editing, was it difficult to structure when it only loosely adheres to a chronology?

Yeah, that was the most challenging aspect of the project and my editor Keiko Deguchi did an incredible job inventively moving back and forth between the archive and Marion’s story. The creative question we always asked was how does Marion point to the archive and how does the archive point back to Marion. That compelled us to dig deeper into the tapes to find material that spoke to our story and [while] there was a very complex structure, the goal was always to make the structure melt away so it feels like one continuous experience, so it’s not just a linear march of time, but we unravel and defy expectations about this singular character.

Did anything upend your own expectations of what this story might be when putting it together?

In an earlier feedback screening, people said you’re telling us the archive is important, but why is it important? And that’s what compelled me to really explore the possibility of tracing a history of police brutality. Of course, this is a cursory history that just scratches the surface, but we had already seen some stories and the reporting in them was clearly racist in terms of its points of view that were anti-immigration. [There was one news story where the] reporter who assumes that a victim of police brutality was white when in fact that victim was African-American and it became clear as we tracked down these stories and observed them that there’s just an embedded racism in the reporting of this issue and the media’s depiction of this issue has only perpetuated its ongoing prevalence.

Was the footage from the show that Marion appeared on frequently – “Input” – actually from her own archive or did you have to track that down?

We had very low-quality transfers of it — the Internet Archive was able to get a submaster from submaster — but Michael found these old Ampex tapes in Marion’s original collection. It’s a really outmoded old medium that’s really only used for audio, but these had a video signal on them and Trevor von Stein, a great resource at the Internet Archive was able to track down somebody who had one of these vintage Ampex players that could get a video signal, so we were able to get these wonderful transfers, which was a real game changer for the film.

Does the work you do on this film actually help with the preservation efforts down the road?

Yeah, I think to some extent. We only digitized 100 of 70,000 tapes, so we hardly scratched the surface, but Marion recorded in Extended Play, so that was 700 hours of footage approximately. What I think we did was create a viable workflow to identify the contents of the collection and to use it towards editorial and artistic goals, and by being able to make use of Marion’s collection in a meaningful way, we’ve demonstrated the value and the urgency to digitize it. VHS is a delicate and disintegrating medium and the more time that passes, the more precarious Marion’s collection becomes, so I think the Internet Archive has a monumental task ahead of them, but they share that same conviction that there’s incredible value in this collection and that it begs to be made accessible for free to the public as Marion had wished.

“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” opens on November 29th in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.

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