Beginning with the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979, Marion Stokes secretly recorded television 24 hours a day at a time when networks did not systematically archive the news. Stokes was a fierce activist, motivated by truth and freedom, and after she began working in television, she quickly recognized the influence media had on society. As she aged, she became a wealthy reclusive archivist, recording over 70,000 VHS tapes in an effort to protect truth and check facts long before “fake news” became a catch phrase. AFI spoke with director Matt Wolf about his new film.
RECORDER: THE MARION STOKES PROJECT plays as part of the Portrait program at AFI DOCS at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington DC on Sunday, June 23. Buy tickets to the screening here.
AFI: What led you to working as a documentary filmmaker?
I was a gay teen activist in San Jose, California. As a senior in high school a documentary crew made a short film about me, and I hated the experience. I felt like I was being forced to perform and to say things in clean soundbites. That piqued my curiosity and made me think about how I might have better relationships with subjects.
AFI: How did you become interested in Marion Stokes’ story and how did you discover the subjects you interviewed in your film?
When Marion Stokes’ 70,000 VHS tapes were acquired by the Internet Archive there was an initial wave of press. I love working with archives, and when I heard about Marion’s collection, I thought to myself, “That’s an archive of literally anything and everything.” I reached out to Marion’s son Michael through some mutual contacts at the Internet Archive, and when I went to visit him and Marion’s assistant Frank in Philadelphia, I arrived at her luxury apartment building. I wasn’t expecting that. When I went inside, I saw hundreds of Marion’s Macintosh Computers in their original boxing. I wasn’t expecting that either! And then I went across the street with Michael and Frank to the restaurant where Marion had her daily martini, and, as we were speaking, they started to cry. I realized pretty quickly that this isn’t just a story about an unprecedented archive — it’s an emotionally complex family story.
AFI: What was a particular challenge you underwent while making the film?
We had to index Marion’s entire collection of 70,000 VHS tapes before editing our film. On each tape spine, Marion wrote the date, the network, times and sometimes other pertinent information, which we call “meta-data.” Through a unique conveyer belt system, we took photographs from the top of each box to capture Marion’s notes, and a team of over fifty volunteers from around the world remotely contributed to a google spreadsheet that now lists the contents of Marion’s entire collection. That’s how I was able to work with our archivist Katrina Dixon to select key dates from Marion’s collection. Indexing the tapes was a project as complex, time consuming and resource draining as making a film!
AFI: What do you hope audiences walk away with after screening RECORDER?
I want audiences to encounter a radical woman who dedicated her life to a visionary project, but at great personal cost. I hope that Marion’s singular story will emotionally impact people, but I expect that the film will compel people to think critically about the ways in which public opinion is molded by the media and the predilections of the people who produce it.
AFI: Why is Washington, DC a great location to screen your film?
DC is home to some of our country’s most significant archives — the National Archives and the Library of Congress. It’s a place where American history is preserved and where people can seek the truth through research and access to open information. The truth is under attack in our country by the President and his administration, and in this charged political climate, I want audiences to consider Marion’s project and her foresight about the state of politics and the media today.
AFI: Why are documentary films important today?
We live in disturbing times where the truth and media are under attack. Within the cascade of the 24-hour news cycle, there is a numbing, stupefying effect. I believe it is important to look to the past to better understand the present, and I think that human stories can help people to connect to contemporary issues and ideas. Documentary films are an opportunity to slow down, to have an emotional experience and to think critically.
Buy tickets to RECORDER: THE MARION STOKES PROJECT here.