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More than a doodle: Untitled Landscape by Arnold Bittleman.

Pause and Playback

Beauty, it’s been said, is in the eye of the beholder. For George Stoney, the “father of community television,” the tools for social change tend to be found in much the same place.

For more than half a century, Stoney has used video to connect—in both the metaphorical and literal sense—people whose lives would otherwise be separated by cultural, geographic or political elements. Along with creating more than 50 documentary films, Stoney is widely regarded as one of the first champions of public-access programming.

Now a professor of documentary filmmaking at New York University, Stoney will visit the Capital Region this week to present his new film, Getting Out, and discuss the ways in which video can encourage people to take a more active role in shaping their community.

Getting Out, a collaboration between Stoney and former student David Bagnall, examines how an innovative arts program at New York’s Sing Sing Penitentiary affected inmates’ lives and their re-integration into society. The film follows two inmates who credit their exposure to poetry and other forms of art while incarcerated as key to their rehabilitation and eventual release.

“Because they’ve done very well, they’re just the sort of people to tell us how difficult it is to get out,” explains Stoney, adding that heavy restrictions imposed during the first years of shooting almost convinced them to drop the project. After discovering how important the program had become to many inmates, they decided to finish the film.

“We found out that the woman who runs the group had been duplicating the [performance tapes] and the guys had been sending them home,” he said. “Here it was, the first thing the guys were ever really proud of—that they wanted their families to see—we needed to finish it.”

In addition to examining the program itself, the film also details the problems encountered by program alumni once they’re released back into society.

“They can never get away from their crimes,” says Stoney, describing the frequent calls received by the film’s subjects for police line-ups and the difficulty of finding employment with a criminal record. “For many of them, there’s no such thing as paying off your debt to society.”

Stoney insists that the screening of his film is meant to be much more than just the presentation of a final product.

“Sure, it’s nice to have you look at my work, but [David and I] want to make something that inspires people to work for change here,” said Stoney. “Because it only happens man by man and neighborhood by neighborhood.”

Stoney has applied a similar perspective in his approach toward community programming. Since cofounding the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, he has experimented with ways for cable television to connect elected officials, their constituents and neighbors—and managed to train the next generation of media advocates along the way. Among the numerous media experts to have trained under Stoney is Susan Buske of the Buske Group, an independent consulting agency recently brought in to help the city of Troy and other local municipalities renegotiate their cable contracts [“Your Input Please,” Newsfront, July 29].

“With so many people working long hours now and commuting, they don’t have time to go to meetings,” says Stoney of the importance of community programming. “This is a way to let them know what’s happening.”

Community programming can be used in any number of ways, Stoney adds, such as one program he encountered in which a town gave its new schoolteachers an opportunity to introduce themselves to the community.

And even with the growth of the Internet, says Stoney, there are still benefits to making locally developed television programming available.

“People are using the Internet quite intelligently and in many ways,” he reasons, “but something that is often overlooked is the group stimulation that comes from producing programs for cable.”

—Rick Marshall

George Stoney’s screening and lecture will take place at the Arts Center of the Capital Region (265 River St., Troy) at 8 PM on Wednesday (Sept. 22). Admission will be $3 with all proceeds benefiting WRPI 91.5 FM. For more information, call 276-4778.

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