Directing the truth

Visionary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles to present a retrospective of his films this week at Cinema of the South Festival in Sderot.

By
June 3, 2013 20:41
4 minute read.
Albert Maysles.

Filmmaker Albert Maysles 370. (photo credit: Courtesy PR)

‘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 College.

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Maysles, who began his career collaborating with his late brother, David, has made dozens of documentaries, among them Salesman, Grey Gardens, 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.”

The Maysles 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 profession.

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 notes.

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 9/11.

“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 music.”

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 satisfying.

I did the camera work and he did the sound,” he recalls.

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 http://mayslesinstitute.or
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