Macalester had a living legend on campus last week—the one and only George Stoney—a man whom many uninhibitedly call one of America’s greatest documentary filmmakers. During his visit, the expert producer, writer and director of more than 50 documentaries talked openly with students, faculty and community members about the impact of filmmaking in addressing social problems.
A media professor at New York University, Stoney delivered guest lectures in four Macalester classes last week, and more than a hundred people came to see the Midwest premiere of his latest film on Thursday night in the John B. Davis lecture hall. At this screening of Getting Out, a collaboration with David Bagnall, we were greeted by a methodical and witty Stoney, who—at the age of 89—is “still kicking,” as one student noted. He teaches a full load of courses at NYU, is busy planning his follow-up film, Staying Out, and takes a class in a subject new to him every semester. Currently, he’s learning about Cuban music.
“There are two and a quarter million people behind bars in the U.S.,” Stoney said. “It’s an absolute disgrace, but that’s the situation today. About 600,000 are due for release in the next 12 months, most of them with no preparation for what awaits them on the outside. It isn’t surprising that more than half will be behind bars again within another year—back to the only security they know.”
Getting Out chronicles the story of a half dozen of these soon-to-be-released inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison 30 miles north of New York City. However, these mostly young, mostly black and Latino male inmates have a slightly less-than-standard Sing Sing experience; this group has become involved with the experimental Rehabilitation through the Arts theater workshop program.
Galvanized by the program, the men decide to put on an original play. They collectively write a script and rehearse for months. Ultimately, they put on a professional-grade performance for the other inmates. “When you can make Sing Sing clap,” the inmate and actor Dewey Bozella quips, “you did a great job.” Indeed, they did do a great job; many of the actors demonstrate extraordinary talent.
The play centered on issues from their past experiences on the outside, running the gamut from topics like drugs and violence to love and family. “It gives them a vehicle for expressing themselves,” noted Stoney.
Needless to say, this kind of collaborative project is highly unusual among maximum-security facilities, especially when so many educational and rehabilitation-based prison programs are being cut in this time of budget shortfalls.
While it’s interesting to get a glimpse into the initial creative process, the real jewels of this film are in the second half, after the inmates finally—as suggested by the film’s title—get out. The theatre experience had been truly transformative for many of the past participants. In one particularly personal moment, ex-inmate Robert Sanchez sits outdoors, and marvels about what it’s like to have his freedom again in a resonant spoken-word poem. Currently, Sanchez works for a social agency dedicated to helping unemployed men find and keep jobs, while continuing to write and perform. Because of the multitude of success stories like his, the theatre program has been able to continue. Now, about 50 inmates every year work to stage two or three full-length productions annually. So far, they’ve put on a total of 15 shows.
During the discussion section after the film, Stoney ruminated on the struggles inherent in making a positive film about prisoners. When the film was pitched to HBO, he unhappily reported, the first thing the executives asked—before they had even seen it—was, “What are the prisoners in for?” It soon became apparent that unless Stoney was willing to disclose the inmates’ past crimes on camera, he would have to settle for a limited release and a much smaller audience. Even PBS shared HBO’s attitude, and declined to air the film.
Nevertheless, “We weren’t going to change it,” Stoney adamantly declared. This would defy the vision of the project, which is “to cause the middle class to regard people who have been in prison as people…and measure them not in terms of their crime, but in terms of their abilities.” He is steadfast in the belief that his films should always “do, not just be.”
Stoney knows, however, that he is treading on delicate ground. That almost 80 percent of the United States prison population is non-white is “overwhelming.” As a middle-class white man himself, he has had to continually confront his own privilege and inherent status as an outsider during the making of Getting Out.
To veteran filmmakers like Stoney, these kinds of issues are relatively new. Some of his earliest films with African American casts were made “without concern for that.” He soberly added, “What harm I might have done in the process, I don’t know.” Now, he always makes sure to convey an acknowledgement that there is a separation. In the making of Getting Out, he says, “I knew that I was white and privileged.”
He disagrees with some filmmakers who try, in effect, “to go ‘native,” by adopting the language and the culture. I think that they’re kidding themselves. People… feel that phoniness very quickly.” In avoiding the phony, however, it does “behoove the filmmaker to know that his or her own class, race, and appearance have an effect on the Other—for good or ill.”
Stoney’s visit was made possible by efforts from the Humanities and Media and Cultural Studies Department, as well as by the St. Paul–based Center for International Education. For more information on Stoney and his work visit “http://www.thecie.org”:www.thecie.org.