‘My life has been one lucky break after another,” says the acclaimed, pioneering
documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles.
Maysles, 86, will be a guest at
this year’s Cinema of the South Festival in Sderot, which will run from June 3-6
at the Sderot Cinematheque, and which is sponsored by Sapir
Maysles, who began his career collaborating with his late
brother, David, has made dozens of documentaries, among them Salesman
, Gimme Shelter
(the ultimate Rolling Stones film), When We Were Kings
(about Muhammad Ali), and many others. He will present a retrospective of his
films at the festival. In addition to the retrospective, he will hold a master
class for aspiring filmmakers.
Discussing his outlook on his films and
career, he cites Alfred Hitchcock’s maxim, “In a fiction film, the director is
God, but in a documentary, God is the director.”
“With a non-fiction
film, you’re not competing with reality,” he says. “It’s a much greater gift to
the public if they get the true story of what’s happening.”
brothers moved away from the traditional talking-heads documentary approach and
helped create a movement called direct cinema, sometimes known by its French
name, cinema verite, in which the filmmakers follow their subjects and let them
reveal themselves gradually.
Maysles did not plan to become a filmmaker
but got a master’s degree in psychology and worked in that
Then, on a trip to the Soviet Union, he got permission to
film inside Russian psychiatric hospitals. He was intrigued by making the 1955
film, Psychiatry in Russia, although the cameras at the time were cumbersome and
could only film for 10 minutes at a time.
Maysles remembers the 1968 film
Salesman as a turning point.
“Salesman was a kind of revolution,” says
Maysles of his much-praised film. “It was the first feature documentary. That
length brought documentaries up to another level, they were easier to market,
easier to show in theaters.”
This was also a documentary about an
ordinary salesman, “Not a celebrity. Norman Mailer saw the film and he said that
it revealed so much about America. We kept on pushing the medium, exploring all
the possibilities,” he says.
“Truth is stranger than fiction. And you
have a tremendous advantage if you’re good at filming real people,” he
Grey Gardens, one of the brothers’ most successful films, was
turned into a Broadway musical and an HBO drama starring Jessica Lange and Drew
Barrymore a few years ago, but Maysles remembers the controversy it generated
when it was first released.
The original documentary, which focused on an
eccentric mother and daughter who were cousins of Jacqueline Onassis, and who
lived in a decaying East Hamptons mansion, struck some viewers as a sad portrait
of two mentally ill women.
“It’s interesting. I saw the script of the HBO
series and the musical and they made the women seem crazier than they actually
were. It was a genuine love relationship....
The movie went so much
further into an understanding of a relationship than one usually gets. I can
assure you if we had misrepresented them in any way they would have thrown us
out of the house.”
It was later named one of the 25 greatest
documentaries of all time by the POV Network.
Maysles has made a number
of films about rock musicians, most recently The Love We Make, a documentary
about the concert that Paul McCartney organized in the aftermath of
“I’ve had a long-standing friendship with Paul McCartney, and he
called me three weeks after 9/11 and said he was organizing a concert and would
I like to film it?” says Maysles.
Maysles hadn’t even heard of The
Beatles when Granada television asked them to film the Beatles’ first visit to
America in 1964.
“I put my hand over the phone and said to David, ‘Who
are the Beatles? Are they any good?’ He said, ‘Oh, yes, they’re good.’ We really
got to show them behind the scenes, we got to know them and their
Many years have passed since Maysles lost his brother, who was
prescribed the wrong medication and died as a result in 1987.
“I had a
very close working relationship with my brother. Very close and very
I did the camera work and he did the sound,” he
Maysles is currently busy running the Maysles Institute, a
center in New York City where documentaries are shown and documentary filmmaking
is taught. He is also at work on a film where he meets people on trains and then
goes with them to wherever they are headed, and hopes to film it in many
countries around the world, including, perhaps, Israel.
While this may
sound like an ambitious project, Maysles says it’s a simple assignment if you
know how to win people’s trust.
“I’m at great odds with people like
Michael Moore. He’s out to get people. I’m out to understand people through love
in a totally authentic way.... It helps a great deal [in documentary filmmaking]
if it’s part of your character to love people. I had parents who were truly in
love with each other. If you make a really good documentary, you will show
moments of truth and vulnerability through the love you feel for the people in
the film.”For more details about the Cinema of the South Festival, go to
the Website at http://csf.sapir.ac.il/
The website for the Maysles Institute is