An Idiosyncratic 'Recorder' of Television Sheds Light on How the News Shapes History

Still from 'Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project,' 2019. (Courtesy of the Internet Archive)

As much as we like to talk about learning from the past, how often do we do the hard work actually revisiting it? Yes, I’m talking about time travel. And while people outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe haven’t figured this one out yet, we mere mortals do get an approximation of the effect in the form of archives, those priceless collections of primary source documents.

In the vast world of archives, there is perhaps none like Marion Stokes’ collection of over 70,000 VHS tapes, her attempt to capture every minute of television news beginning in 1979 and ending only with her death in 2012.

Filmmaker Matt Wolf delved into Stokes’ collection to create Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, a documentary that is as much a portrait of the history of television as it is a portrait of the Philadelphia recluse at its center. Playing June 8 (tickets at rush) and June 10 at the Roxie Theater as part of SF DocFest, Recorder is the story of a woman on a mission to protect the truth.

With a background as a radical communist, librarian and public affairs television host, Stokes began recording the news during the Iranian Hostage crisis. (This, the film points out, was the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle.) Stokes captured not just the subjects of the news, but the everyday ephemera of commercials, advances in television graphics, shifts in fashion and, of course, hairstyles.

Today, the physical tapes reside at the Internet Archive, to which Stokes’ son donated the collection after her death. Eventually, these three-decades-worth of television will be digitized for all to see, but until we’re all able to dip into that mode of time travel, Recorder is providing festival audiences with a portal to the past.

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