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Arts & Culture

INDEPENDENT LENS: Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Marion Stokes in "Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project." Courtesy of End Cue / Electric Chinoland.
Courtesy of Eileen Edmond
Marion Stokes in "Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project." Courtesy of End Cue / Electric Chinoland.

Airs Monday, June 15, 2020 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV + Saturday, June 20 at 9 a.m. on KPBS 2 + PBS Video App

Look inside the life of a radical activist who videotaped everything on television for 30 years

A fiercely intelligent, radical activist who became a fabulously wealthy recluse in her later years, Marion Stokes was dedicated to furthering and protecting the truth — so much so that she recorded American television 24 hours a day for over 30 years.

Now, the critically acclaimed documentary “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” peels back the curtain on her life, through a mix of Stokes’ own archive of recordings and interviews with those who knew her best.

Heralded by the New York Times as “Weirdly exhilarating... Enlightening and the stuff of madness,” and named a Times Critic’s Pick, “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” premieres on INDEPENDENT LENS Monday, June 15, 2020.

Long before the term “fake news” entered the national conversation, Philadelphia-based activist Marion Stokes recognized the shifting nature of the media and the importance of protecting the truth. Stokes worked in television in the late 1960s and believed in the power of the medium to inform or misinform the public.

She determined that a comprehensive archive of national media would one day be invaluable, and began recording television broadcasts in 1979, starting with news broadcasts of the Iranian hostage crisis at the dawn of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and continuing until her death in 2012.

Spanning 70,000 video tapes that captured revolutions, lies, wars, triumphs, catastrophes, bloopers, talk shows, and commercials, Stokes’ visionary and maddening project nearly tore her family apart.

Recalling her as “extraordinarily, indescribably loyal to her own preferences and tendencies and beliefs,” family members and others close to Stokes reflect on their relationships with this complicated and dogmatic woman.

Through these interviews, Marion Stokes emerges in vivid detail as a highly intelligent, challenging figure who nevertheless recognized transformative shifts in media and technology as they were happening, and who had the prescience to foresee the importance of creating an archive of American television for posterity.

Stokes’ instincts were right. Even as she was making her recordings, American television networks were disposing of their archives; decades of footage disappeared into the trashcan of history.

Thanks to Stokes’ project, this footage has been saved and her 70,000 tapes are now being digitized for future generations by the Internet Archive.

Her work as an archivist will make its impact felt for generations to come, giving us all an eye-opening glimpse into how television shaped, and continues to shape, our world.

Watch On Your Schedule:

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This episode will be available simultaneously with the broadcast on the INDEPENDENT LENS website, PBS.org and the KPBS Video Player for a limited time.

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Join The Conversation:

INDEPENDENT LENS is on Facebook, Instagram, and you can follow @IndependentLens on Twitter.#IndieLensPBS #MarionTapes

Credits:

Directed by Matt Wolf. Produced by Kyle Martin, Lisa Ciuffetti, Andrew Kortschak, Walter Kortschak, Munika Lay. Executive Producers: Brendan Doyle, Sally Jo Fifer, Pete Sillen, Lois Vossen. Edited by Keiko Deguchi. Music by Owen Pallett. Cinematographers: Chris Dapkins and Matt Mitchell.