Guest contributor Josh Glick, a Film Studies and American Studies Scholar from Yale University, recently had a chance to reflect on the seminal work of the late great George Stoney.
George C. Stoney, one of the great innovators of American documentary, passed away on July 12, at the age of 96.
Stoney’s tireless pursuit of using non-fiction media as a tool to advocate for social causes, and to give voice to marginalized individuals and communities, took him across the country and around the world. Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Stoney cultivated a passion for engaged observation when he worked as a publicist for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression and then as a photo intelligence officer in Europe during World War II.
Over the next six decades, Stoney worked as a filmmaker, writer, teacher, and activist, always exploring ways to expand the progressive potential of documentary. He directed features for the Southern Educational Film Production Service and numerous professional associations in the 1940s and 1950s; served as Executive Producer for the Challenge for Change Program with the National Film Board of Canada in the late 1960s; taught production and film history courses at New York University beginning in 1970; and was a proponent for public access to cable programming up until his recent death.
In Stoney’s expansive 50-film+ oeuvre, one of his earliest features, All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story (1952) exemplifies his compassionate, interactive approach to documentary he would pursue throughout his career.
Filmed in the rural African American community of Albany, Georgia and sponsored by the Georgia Department of Public Health, All My Babies was intended to teach the profession of midwifery to doctors, aspiring midwives, schools, and health departments. And to be sure, All My Babies is quite a clinical and technical film. Georgia’s Division of Maternal and Child Health mandated that the film cover 118 teaching points concerning prenatal care and delivery techniques.
Yet All My Babies moves beyond its strict pedagogical purpose. The real focus of the film is the African American midwife Mary Coley. The narrative follows “Miss Mary” on her professional rounds and through two different births. The film’s portrait of a local African American midwife as a dignified and prominent professional, respected by her co-workers and the white medical community, was bold at a time when the Deep South was highly segregated. Stoney took time to gain the trust and confidence of Coley and closely involved her in the planning and production process. The two worked as collaborators in the scripting and staging of the film. The idea was the crew would capture Coley “re-presenting” her routines.
Most of the individuals that appear in the film are people performing as themselves, rather than professional actors playing character types. Additionally, the extended birth sequence is in fact real, not fabricated. All My Babies followed a documentary ethos more akin to the British and American traditions of Basil Wright and Pare Lorentz of the 1930s-40s than the cinéma vérité-style model of fly-on-the-wall observation of the 1960s-70s.
The resulting documentary establishes the importance of the medical and civic role midwives play in their community and provides insight into the culture of care to which Mary Coley contributed so much. The soundtrack even gives the film a lyrical quality, endowing the actions of the individuals with an added grace. The choral singing by the Musical Art Chorus in Washington, DC heightens the sense of jubilance associated with childbirth. At times these voices comment on the activities taking place in the film, animating and advancing the narrative. Additionally, the soft singing of Miss Mary which she uses to keep time, pass time, or put her patient at ease reveals music as something embedded within her daily experiences.
All My Babies achieved a level of recognition unusual for a “sponsored” or “educational” film. It went on to play for professional associations all over the U.S. and also transcended national boarders, as government bodies and health and medical organizations exhibited the film in Europe, the Middle East, and in South America. All My Babies won a special Robert J. Flaherty award in 1953, was screened at Cinema 16 in New York, and was selected in 2002 for permanent preservation in the National Film Registry. It can be viewed online on Snag Films and is available for purchase through vendors such as Amazon and Documentary Educational Resources.
A beautiful documentary in so many ways, All My Babies is also a deeply ethical project. Stoney’s compassion and respect for the people in front of the camera shines through in each frame of the film.