by June Portnoy
Karl Stieg, director of “Geil of Doylestown, Forgotten Explorer,” won this year’s New Hope Film Festival’s Jury Award for Best Biography. Karl, a graduate of Central Bucks High School South who was born and raised in Doylestown, directed this documentary about William Edgar Geil.
“A century ago, Geil was the first person to travel the length of the Great Wall of China, an 82-day, history-making event,” says Karl, who recently received his bachelor’s degree in Cinematic Arts from the University of Southern California (USC). “Geil was also one of the most celebrated travelers and speakers of his time. He is well-known in China, and yet, most people in this country, as well as his own hometown of Doylestown don’t know anything about him.”
Karl strove to revive Geil’s extraordinary legacy in his 43-minute documentary about his life. Karl and his friend, Andrew Stowe, also a USC graduate, spent 20 days filming the documentary; 10 days in Doylestown and 10 in Beijing.
“I lived in China for four years during my early childhood, so shooting there made this experience more personal for me,” says Karl.
The film includes stunning footage of the Great Wall of China; commentary by Professor Robert LaFleur, the country’s leading expert on Geil; and narration by Hollywood actor, Alexis Denisof.
Karl first heard about Geil in 2009 when his mother, a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote an article about the Doylestown Historical Society’s new exhibit about him. In 2012, Karl learned that the Historical Society was looking for someone to create a film about Geil.
“Andrew and I submitted a proposal including my vision for the documentary, our budget and a preliminary schedule,” says Karl. “I was thrilled when we were selected to shoot this film.”
Karl, who has always been interested in history, found Geil’s story intriguing. “Today, it’s no longer feasible to explore new locations, since every area has already been discovered and travelled.
“However, there is still an infinite amount of information to explore and learn, and Geil is a prime example of that. This documentary illustrates that there are still mysteries out there that people can discover.”
Karl has been interested in making documentaries since he was young. He filmed his first documentary about his family for his grandparent’s 50th anniversary.
When he was just 14, he submitted a documentary to his first film festival. This was a documentary about the Budzynski Studios in New Hope where his sister danced. He filmed the production of their world premier of the Midsummer Night’s Dream ballet.
Karl won the Bucks Fever Film Festival for best high school documentary, a real accomplishment considering he had not even begun in high school yet.
Even during high school when Karl focused most of his attention on the marching band and jazz band, he still brought his camera with him. Every year he created a documentary of the marching band, in which he conducted interviews with its members.
“The band teacher used these documentaries as a promotional tool to motivate incoming students to join the marching band,” said Karl.
It wasn’t until college that Karl received his first formal training of the world of film. “All the courses I took at USC were invaluable to me as a filmmaker,” says Karl.
The “Geil of Doylestown, Forgotten Explorer” was the first documentary that Karl directed after college, and he was overjoyed that it premiered in his hometown at the County Theater in Doylestown. He was even more excited for his film to receive the Best Biography award during the New Hope Film Festival’s award ceremony held July 21st.
It was the “Geil of Doylestown: Forgotten Explorer’s” first film festival award; a meaningful award considering this year’s festival presented 108 official selections from 17 countries and Antarctica.
Karl now lives in Los Angeles, where he and Andrew are preparing to work on their next documentary together. Meanwhile, the Doylestown Historical Society is currently promoting the “Geil of Doylestown, Forgotten Explorer” to schools.
“One of the Historical Society’s goals is to send this film to local schools when teaching students about China or the timeframe when Geil lived,” explains Karl.
In addition, Karl’s documentary is now on sale at the Doylestown Historical Association.
You can also see a trailer of this film at http://www.vimeo.com/karlstieg/forgottenexplorertrailer. In addition, visit the “Geil” Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ForgottenExplorer.
PHOTO CAP: Karl Stieg (right) with Doug Whipple, founder of the New Hope Film Festival, at the awards ceremony in July.