Marion Stokes was a New York based librarian who decided to record the news. She tirelessly documented over thirty years of news broadcasts on VHS tapes. Years after her death her efforts are finally being recognised. This documentary looks over her life’s work and examines the impact this endeavour had on her personal life.
There are two narratives being recounted here. One examines the life of an activist as she struggles to maintain her family life. The other regards the changing nature of broadcast news and the impact it has on American society. I think it says a lot about Stoke’s work that I wanted to hear more if the latter. The film focuses mostly on her story and family, with the news footage almost forming interludes to illustrate the time between episodes. Fortunately Stokes is a very interesting person.
Whilst Stoke’s story is fascinating I only occasionally saw the parallels between her life and her project. Compare this to recent documentary “Ask Dr Ruth” in which every new detail revealed about Ruth’s life further demonstrated the relevance of her work. Although Stokes was an activist, I’d have like to have heard more about her beliefs and why she felt this recording was such an act of defiance. We are tantalisingly told that she didn’t want anyone knowing exactly what she was recording. Perhaps she just took too many of her interesting ideas along with her.
Some of the potential of the actual recording project is realised. We see four main news channels playing in real time as they each cut to emergency broadcasts covering the 9/11 attacks. I have never seen the iconic coverage of this event displayed this way and it’s a portrait of American life savagely interrupted. This is history come alive, and she did this for thirty years of news.
Recorder is a story that hints at a much greater work. A feature film is perhaps insufficient to truly capture the complexities and value of Stoke’s work. I’m thrilled by the prospect of her footage being used by artists and historians using this footage to assemble great works. This film is more interested in the woman behind the recorders.