Out filmmaker chronicles late Philadelphian’s astonishing media project

In her Rittenhouse Square apartment, Marion Stokes recorded 70,000 VHS tapes from 1977 until her death in 2012. Her main focus was TV news; she simultaneously taped multiple 24-hour news channels to compile an archive that showed how media reflected society. She was interested in the power of mass media to influence public opinion. She also was an early adapter and stockholder of Apple products, amassing everything the company produced.

Out gay filmmaker Matt Wolf’s fantastic documentary, “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project,” screening June 28 at 7 p.m. at Lightbox Film Center, is a profile of this remarkable librarian, activist and archivist. Once a TV commentator, she appeared on “Input,” a public affairs program that aired on WCAU from 1968-1971.

It was on the show where she met her second husband, John Stokes. Their relationship was kind of a closed circuit. When one of John’s daughters wanted to contact her father or stepmother, she was instructed to use FedEx. Marion was not any closer to her son, Michael Metelits and their relationship experienced strained periods.

“Recorder” is a fascinating glimpse into Marion Stokes’ life and legacy. Wolf interviews her personal assistants, Michael Metelits and John Stokes’ children, among others, to provide a portrait of an eccentric woman who created an extraordinary archive.

In a recent phone interview, Wolf spoke with the Philadelphia Gay News about his documentary.

PGN: How did you find out about Marion Stokes’ work, and why did you decide: this story needs to be a film?

MW:  I like to make films with challenging and unprecedented archives, so when I heard about this woman who recorded TV, I was intrigued to know more. I was inspired by this archive that contains anything and everything. Through a contact at the Internet Archive, where her collection resides, I met Michael [Metelits], and when I arrived at the Barclay and there were hundreds of Apple boxes. … It’s a very intense family story too. I’m interested in stories about problematic visionaries — people who are at once insightful and dysfunctional.


PGN: What do you think is the most unusual or interesting thing about her?

MW: I think she’s unequivocally radical and not in any conventional sense. She defies the categories and tropes of what a radical person is. She pursued projects outside of established institutions, and she saw patterns and phenomena in the culture and reacted to them and did something about them. Most people are not women of action. She reacted to Apple and the 24-hour news cycle. The ways she reacted were unusual but insightful. She was politically radical as well, and I found that very appealing.


PGN: What can you say about assembling all the footage to tell a story?

MW: I was always looking at ways that the archive pointed to Marion and Marion pointed to the archive; how it is interwoven with her personal story. It was an elaborate process. We had to fully index her collection in a grassroots way and take photos of VHS spines and transcribe them and then create dates to pull specific dates to digitize. I had to scrub through tapes to mark interesting things. The subjects I looked for were through the prism of her main interests — Cuba and the depiction of Communism; the emergence of technology in society; and race, particularly in regard to police brutality and black leadership in the political scene.


PGN: Marion feared judgment and was secretive about her recording project. She is described as a visionary, ahead of her time, but also irrational. What do you make of her character?

MW: When I was making the film, I said, I’m not going to use psychological explanations to understand her behavior. There are dimensions to her shutting out the rest of the world. Elizabeth Stokes [one of John’s daughters] observes that Marion was more concerned about getting information through the news than actual information about or from her family. The media superseded all other relationships. That was dysfunctional. She chose her project over relationships and for whatever reason, wasn’t able to have both. Michael said she had unrealistic expectations of her family. 


PGN: Why do you think the news media, specifically TV, but also newspapers, interested her rather than the Internet?

MW: A lot of it stems from her concerns about privacy. She didn’t want to use the Internet or have a modem in her house. That dovetails with her paranoia. She was spied on by the government. She was prescient. Government surveillance and corporate use of the Internet was a huge concern. The nature of the news media was shifting. Her project, toward the end of her life, was becoming obsolete, so her collection is unique — made at a time where TV news had influence.


PGN: What observations do you have about the importance of her archive and how it can be used to foment social change?

MW: It’s difficult to know what it may be used for. I think that the goal of the archive isn’t to explain or analyze or define how it will be used; it is so others have access. As a documentary filmmaker, I find material that’s critical to the expression of ideas the originator might not have conceived of. We don’t know what activism, scholarship, reporting, documentary filmmaking or consciousness the archive will produce. There is an array of characters and actors and historical figures we’ll have access to. It’s impossible to define its value or how it might be used.