When the Academy Awards ceremonies commence March 25 in Los Angeles, Paul Wagner and Marjorie Hunt will be among those anxiously awaiting the final awards. Their film, "The Stone Carvers" -- about the immigrant artisans who have been practicing their craft on the National Cathedral for the last 20 years -- has been nominated in the documentary short film category.
Hunt, a folklore specialist at the Smithsonian, and Wagner, an independent filmmaker, started working on a Smithsonian Folklife Festival program called "The Folklore of Washington" in 1978. The film, which was produced in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution, grew out of that project. Soon after it was completed last May, the film won a CINE Golden Eagle award, which enabled the team to enter the Academy Award process "at the last minute."
"We felt the public was starving to hear these stories," explains Hunt, who began her work on the film by walking up to the carvers' workshop on the cathedral grounds, where she "wheedled them into coming down to the Mall." She persuaded the carvers, many of whom had worked on government buildings in the 1930s and '40s, to narrate the film.
"This breed of person was disappearing, and we wanted to tell their story," says Wagner. "This was not just a dying profession but a dying culture."
"The Stone Carvers" is chiefly narrated by Vincent Palumbo, an Italian immigrant. His love for stone-working and the cathedral on which he has spent half his life glows through the film's entirety. To a sound track of rich Italian folk music and the baroque works of Giovanni Gabrieli, Palumbo and his colleagues carve the intricate figures -- "grotesqueries" and gargoyles -- into granite while relating anecdotes about other carvers and their shared camaraderie. They poke fun at the unadorned structures built in the last 20 years, fondly reminiscing about their work on the neoclassical Federal Triangle buildings.
Of course, Wagner and Hunt will be in Los Angeles for the envelope-opening. "Actually, we're going twice," says Hunt -- once for a nominees' dinner, and then again for the ceremony.
Another Washington-based group, the Nature Conservancy, has a nominee in the same category. "The Garden of Eden" argues for the preservation of species diversity in a world in which about one plant or animal species per day becomes extinct.