by Ron Simon
Television thrives on the neurotic lunacy of hoarders, but rarely do we experience the passion and purpose of a methodical collector, who really made a difference. Matt Wolf’s masterful documentary, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project takes us into the visionary psychic and cluttered physical worlds of a woman who turned her acquiring fury into a unique archive of contemporary history. Recorder had its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2019.
Marion Stokes was obsessed with how the media framed the crucial issues of the day. From the Iranian Hostage Crisis in November 1979 until her death during the Sandy Hook School Shootings in December 2012, she secretly recorded various news channels twenty-four hours a day. Stokes amassed over 70,000 videotapes, maintaining a record of how television interpreted or misrepresented events. But Stokes herself remained very much of an enigma, with director Wolf relating her incredible legacy through stories from her son and assistants.
Born poor in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, the African American Stokes found her calling as a librarian. But her professional career was scuttled because of her Communist leanings. She became active in progressive causes, producing a local Philly series Input in the late sixties, which was a revelation in local television and an impressive accomplishment for a Black woman of that era. Input provided a platform for citizens, academics and activists to debate frankly about social justice, race, and culture. (Clips can be found here.) Marion also found an intellectual partner in the show’s host John Stokes, a wealthy white philanthropist. The excitement of the duo sharing ideas on this program is palpable.
Stokes and Marion became married partners in life, and he underwrote her technological curiosity, moving her beyond newspaper and book stockpiling. Always the librarian, she was gripped with innovative ways to share information. Although she never sent an email or used the Internet, she amassed hundreds of Apple computers. But video recording was her mission, having tapes carted to her apartment on ritzy Rittenhouse Square in anonymous black bags.
There is little existent footage of Marion outside Input, but her archives speak volumes. Stokes planned every outing so that she could be home in six hours to change a VHS tape. Wolf creatively uses images from her off-air recordings to perhaps probe her subconscious. Using her tapes, he creates a mosaic of how the major networks initially broadcast news of 9/11. It is chilling how silly morning news suddenly became sober. Stokes’ archive gives us the perspective to compare the instantaneous reactions of several news gatherers grappling with live events.
Stokes’ story has been passed around via a 2013 Fast Company article, which inspired Wolf to make the film. Her taped treasures found a home at the Internet Archive, which is making the contents available online (click here)*. Her preservation of local news programs in Philadelphia and Boston is particularly invaluable for researchers.
Wolf’s illuminating documentary is part detective work to uncover an unconventional life and part love story of two individuals devoted to preserve that which everyone else takes for granted. Stokes was an activist-archivist and her tenacity of holding on to our media past can only be completed by future historians. Stokes lived a life well saved.
* But note that none of Marion Stokes’s recorded footage is identified as hers; there is no indication that any of her archival materials were collected by her, which HelenHighly thinks is a little odd, if not Highly odd.