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How Documentarian Matthew Wolf Tackled an Archive of 70,000 VHS Tapes for “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”

A visionary media critic and public access television host, Marion Stokes sought to create a comprehensive archive of American television that would one day prove to be invaluable.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project will air June 15, 2020 as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series

A former librarian and Communist radical who became fabulously wealthy later in life, Marion Stokes secretly recorded American television 24 hours a day for more than 30 years from 1979 until her death in 2012. For Stokes, an African-American media critic and public access television host who also collected Apple computers, taping was a form of activism to seek the truth and she believed that a comprehensive archive of the media would one day be invaluable.

Released by Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber, and directed by Matt Wolf, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project tells the story of the visionary Stokes and her maddening project that nearly tore her family apart. Film critic Richard Brody, writing for The New Yorker, calls Stokes “an information revolutionary,” who, “despite her decades of isolation, touched the nerve center of the times.” Recorder premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was nominated for Best Documentary Feature, and went on to screen at Hot Docs and the Athens International Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Golden Athena.

Stokes began taping in 1979, starting with the Iranian Hostage Crisis at the dawn of the twenty-four hour news cycle. Recording in extended play mode to conserve stock, Stokes employed assistants to shuffle tapes in and out of the eight or so VHS decks that ran at all hours in her apartment. Her 30-year project ended on December 14, 2012 while the Sandy Hook massacre played on television as Stokes passed away. In between, Stokes recorded on 70,000 VHS tapes, capturing revolutions, lies, wars, triumphs, catastrophes, bloopers, talk shows, and commercials that tell us who we were, and show how television shaped the world of today.

“What she did in this project was very ideologically agnostic,” Wolf tells Matthew Carey at Deadline. “She wasn’t interested in editorializing the material. She didn’t re-watch the material. Like a library or an institution, she was very focused on capturing everything and creating a definitive record of the media.”

This remarkable time capsule of American history and popular culture was acquired in 2013 by the San Francisco-based Internet Archive, which was committed to preserving and digitizing the collection, a process that continues today. Wolfe, who is known for his unconventional and cinematic use of archival footage in documentary features like Teenage, assembled a team of more than 50 archivists to index Stokes’ vast collection that, before her death, piled floor to ceiling in the various properties she owned throughout Philadelphia.

“Dealing with the entire archive was obviously never a real possibility, but I like to develop a unique process for every film I do,” Wolf details in an interview with Scott Macaulay for Filmmaker Magazine:

“I developed a process in which we had to actually index Marion’s full collection. We created with the help of archivists at the Internet Archive a conveyor belt in which we would take the tops off of file boxes where Marion stored her tapes. The tapes were stored spine up, and we would take a photograph of that box showing the spines of every single tape in the box. We had probably a thousand or more photos, and then we had to transcribe the metadata that she had written on these tape spines on the VHS tapes. And so we put a call out for volunteers and over 50 people from around the world signed up to help us. We created a Dropbox folder that had all those images and the collaborative Google spreadsheet and people would collectively transcribe the metadata to this database. And eventually one volunteer archivist in particular, Katrina Dixon, rose to the occasion and became more dedicated in a full-time way to completing the index.

“And then my process was to actually use Wikipedia as a way to track both big-ticket historical events, but really also the obscure, weird ones — you know, like the day the Miss America pageant stage collapsed. I went through Wikipedia, which has a page for each year, and I just wrote a giant list of specific days that I thought might have interesting and relevant material on them. And Katrina would go through the index and find tapes that were as close as possible to the days and times that might cover these stories. And then I’d prioritize [that information]. Ultimately we digitized a hundred tapes with the help of the Bay Area Video coalition, who are preservationists and partners on the project. She recorded EP [extended play], so these were six-to-eight-hour tapes. Sometimes a tape would have nothing of interest on it and be totally random and other times it would be a gold mine of material. So I would scrub at 10 times speed through these tapes, just hitting markers whenever I saw something that was interesting, and I worked with assistant editors who would then pull these clips, and organize them for our editor who would then have material organized by subjects and dates. And that’s how we [developed] a pretty rigorous system to wrangle and search for specific things. But ultimately it was the things we weren’t searching for that were the most interesting.”

Released by Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber, documentarian Matt Wolf’s “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” tells the story of a visionary who secretly recorded more than 30 years of American history and popular culture into an archive of 70,000 VHS tapes.

Editing the material from Stokes’ archive was the most challenging aspect of the project, Wolf readily admits in an interview with Stephen Saito in Moveable Feast. “My editor Keiko Deguchi did an incredible job inventively moving back and forth between the archive and Marion’s story,” he notes, adding, “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.”

From “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”
From “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”

For one key sequence in the film, Wolf employs a split-screen to show how four different networks aired coverage of 9/11, demonstrating the evolution of how the story was being told as it unfolded in real time. “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,” Wolf explains in his interview with Saito:

“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.”

Kate Erbland, in her film review for IndieWire, remarks that “Wolf wisely doesn’t aim to use Recorder as a way to catalogue everything Stokes recorded — that would be exhausting and foolish — but the film is still packed with enough of Stokes’ archives to paint an insightful picture of both her and the world she sought to document.” Erbland notes that “the film offers a crash course in some of America’s own greatest news obsessions, from Baby Jessica to Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis, the impeachment of Bill Clinton to 9/11 and quite literally everything in between. Stokes was on hand to record the announcement of the first Macintosh computer… She captured hours and hours of congressional hearings. Need your memory jogged when it comes to the 1985 MOVE bombing or the Unabomber or Oprah’s rise to fame? It’s all in Stokes’ archive.”

From “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”

In The Hollywood Reporter, film critic Frank Scheck observes that Stokes’ story could be seen as a cautionary tale about compulsive behavior, “including Marion’s hoarding that manifested itself in some 50,000 books and countless newspapers and magazines among other things,” he writes. “But it also has a (spoiler alert) happy ending,” he continues:

“Marion reconnected with her son late in her life and became a loving grandmother to his young daughters. After she died, Michael was left with her 70,000-plus VHS tapes that nobody seemed to want. Nobody, that is, until he contacted the Internet Archive in San Francisco, which happily accepted the collection that included countless hours of television news coverage that otherwise would have been lost forever. The entire collection is now in the process of being digitized, with the institution’s director describing Marion as a ‘visionary.’”

“At the very best, Recorder is a handsomely crafted, expertly textured rumination on a life not just of a spirited activist, but of a sociological archivist,” Joshua Brunsting writes in his review for Criterion:

“The most striking moment of Recorder is easily the film’s Mike Figgis-like recollection of the moments right before September 11, 2001. Set up as four squares on the screen, viewers watch as four different networks break the news, live, about the towers being attacked. It plays as a horror film in real time, with each viewer being perfectly aware not just of what’s to come in each subsequent quadrant, but of the exact moment that this terrorist attack happened both literally and more abstractly. What is for a majority a relatively classical biographical documentary about a woman whose life was truly one of a kind, it’s in these moments of broader abstraction that Wolf’s Recorder becomes truly special.”

Want more? Watch director Matthew Wolf discuss the five-year process of making Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project in the videos below: