When I was a little girl, my grandparent’s neighbor passed away, and we inherited several boxes of VHS tapes. The old man had recorded every single moment of the OJ Simpson trial, from start to finish. Each tape was neatly labeled, placed in order, and then (presumably) promptly forgotten about. I used to think about that all the time, the idea of a cultural event so significant that a fairly average individual would feel compelled to preserve the record of it and become an informal, independent cultural documentarian. Now that I’ve seen Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, I see its importance.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Marion Stokes embarked upon an increasingly obsessive journey to document as much news coverage as possible. Family, employees, and caretakers remember her recording on as many as eight different television sets simultaneous, 24 hours a day for 30 years, until the day she died. Marion left behind storage units full of VHS tapes, secure in the belief that she had done her part to preserve a record of mass media. She felt that if studied, people could learn from these tapes, but perhaps more importantly, they were weapons that had the power to hold journalists and politicians accountable for the things they said to the American people.

Marion Stokes Tapes 04-02-1991

Until this point, the nightly news was considered largely ephemeral — the subtle nuances and biases and narrative shifts in day-to-day news coverage were forgotten, disappearing into the air as soon as the newscaster finished speaking. No one had ever bothered to track how news stories changed over the course of their coverage, or what elements were being emphasized and how that might influence the perceptions of their audience. Then Marion came along.

In essence, she’s the person filming a home video in a hospital as the 24-hour news cycle is being born. Now more than ever, the news is being manipulated and shaped to meet a growing and seemingly insatiable appetite for the real-life drama of neverending rubbernecking in the guise of reporting.

Marion’s story is remarkable for two reasons. One, for the incredible foresight it required to have seen the changes that were coming to the news medium around the Iranian hostage crisis and to realize their larger implications. But also because of her unrelenting commitment to and undaunting belief in the significance of her exhaustive collection.

Marion Stokes Tapes 01-21-1981

The film does an excellent job balancing the narrative of Marion’s life with the larger context of mass media’s rapidly changing landscape. Recorder juggles the two deftly enough that we never forget why she felt compelled to go to such lengths and what it cost her in terms of personal relationships, or why it was ultimately so important.

It feels strange for 30 years worth of old news footage taped off the television to seem timely. But in an America where external forces influenced voters by strategically flooding the internet with misleading information or outright lies, certain news networks have dropped the veneer of objectivity in favor of partisan propaganda, and one media group owns the vast majority of local news channels, Marion’s project feels more relevant and vital than ever before. And when a compelling personal story meets with a deeply significant political message which is then put in the hands of competent filmmakers who have empathy for their subject, an emotionally effective and intellectually satisfying documentary is born.

Rating: ★★★★

Directed by: Matt Wolf