(George Stoney and Betty Puleston)
Documentary filmmaker George Stoney died on July 12 at age 96. I did not know George well. I met him just five years ago at a meeting of the New York Film and Video Council (NYFVC) where we were both members. That's where I learned about his fifty groundbreaking documentary films, which spanned more than half a century.
You could not help but instantly like George. He greeted you with a warm engaging smile and direct eye contact. Despite his 90-plus years, his halting steps had upbeat energy that everyone noticed when he entered the room. "Doesn't George look great," admirers would say -- and then surround him, as if drawn by magnetic force.
I got to know George a bit better in 2009 when I had the privilege of co-producing (and narrating), along with former WNBC-TV producer Rita Satz, a short documentary about George and his film career. We interviewed George at an award ceremony at New York City's Donnell Library, where he was honored and several of his classic documentaries were screened. Then Rita followed with a more intensive interview at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network public access television studio, which George was instrumental in founding -- indeed, George is often called the "father of public access television."
Later, Rita and videographer Gloria Messer struggled up the five flights to George's apartment in Greenwich Village to gather additional film footage. The small modest one bedroom apartment was a virtual museum, overflowing with memorabilia covering his career: photos, scrapbooks awards, tributes, and more. In reminiscing, George commented on the strong influence on his film making by Italian neo-realism that combined vérité and recreation, a powerful technique that he used in addressing important social issues that gave voice to oppressed peoples. One of his favorite films was All My Babies, a 1952 documentary about midwives serving poor African-Americans in rural Georgia.
His excitement and enthusiasm spilled over as he spoke about the film he was working on at the time, about the people -- many decades later -- delivered by those midwives, many of whom have risen dramatically from their humble rural backgrounds.
Then he spoke tenderly about his latest documentary, which was soon to be released. Flesh in Ecstasy is about the French sculptor Gaston Lachaise and his lover (later wife) Isabel Dutaud Nagel, who was the model for his masterpiece, "Standing Woman"... George called the documentary his "valentine to Betty Puleston, the love of my life." (Betty was Isabel's niece and George's lifetime friend, partner and collaborator. She died in 2009.)
At age 93 George was not planning to slow down. He was looking forward to a full teaching semester at New York University's Film School, where he had taught since 1971. When Rita asked what motivated him, he said, "What choice do I have?" He went on to explain that filmmaking is a collaborative effort and that his students depended on him; he didn't want to let them down. George always used the word "collaborative," adding, "There's no such thing as my film."
I saw George just two months ago when we rode up the elevator together to attend a New York Film and Video Council program on "Composing for Film, T.V. and Animation." He looked frail and was using a walker. Nevertheless, in the discussion that followed the presentations and screenings, George sprang to life -- a life of film.
The documentary film industry has lost a giant. But his legacy will live on through his illustrious films and the thousands he mentored, worked with and inspired.
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