As I listened to the famous documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles speak at the Detroit Film Theatre on October 20, 2007, I thought about the importance of trust in his work.
You have to trust the story that you are documenting to communicate the main message to the audience. Maysles criticized filmmaker Michael Moore for going into projects with preconceived ideas, and not letting the story tell itself.
You have to trust your instincts about where your next assignment will take you. When Maysles got a telephone call in early 1964 about the Beatles arriving in America, he turned to his brother (and filmmaking partner) David, and asked, “Are these guys any good?” David’s positive reply led to the film The Beatles in the USA.
And most of all, you have to gain the trust of the people you are filming. Then, they can grant you access to their unique world, with the hope that you will portray it in a fair, tasteful manner.
A New Look at Politics
Maysles was speaking after a showing of the film Primary, which showed John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey campaigning in 1960 at the Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary. Maysles helped film this movie (directed by Robert Drew), which Maysles called a “revolutionary” film because it showed how you could take personal photography “behind the scenes and turn it into moviemaking.”
History came alive in this film, with the famous images of Kennedy (and his equally photogenic wife Jackie) being presented in a completely new way. There was the “Happy Warrior” Hubert Humphrey plugging away, only to lose to Kennedy in both this primary and the West Virginia primary. Those two races helped convince many voters that Kennedy’s Catholic religion should not be an issue in the presidential race.
When Maysles was asked how such a film would be created in the current presidential race (when, he said, “access is virtually impossible”), he said he would gather the participants in a conference room and explain what he wanted to do. Primary was successful because “Humphrey and Kennedy had the confidence that these guys could be trusted,” said Maysles.
Maysles, whose films include Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1976), felt hopeful about the future of documentary filmmaking, which has often had trouble getting funded and distributed, because of the reliance of many news organizations on their own material.
Cable television (like PBS and HBO), home video, and theaters like the DFT have brought more attention to documentary filmmakers. Maysles said he was excited about the possibility of things being put on film for millions of people to see (unlike Primary, which had to wait “years” before being shown). Among current documentaries, Maysles recommended Gypsy Caravan (which plays at the Michigan Theater in November 2007).
Maysles’ appearance was sponsored by the Wayne State Department of Communication and was part of the Detroit Docs International Film Festival. After Maysles’ talk, I watched two festival films—The Sister of Significant Suffering (Australia) and The Bushman’s Secret (Africa). Both movies showed their main characters trying to discover their roots and their place in the world.
Maysles’ work now includes teaching in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, where he is instructing 8-12-year old children on how to make movies.
After taking notes for this blog entry, I put down my pen and paper and relaxed. I wanted to fully take in Maysles’ words, letting this straightforward, unpretentious man tell his own story, in as honest and sincere a manner as any of his documentaries.
I thought back to an earlier question from the audience about how Maysles’ parents influenced him. He and his brother David (who died in 1987) learned filmmaking technique on their own, but they needed more than that.
“What I did get from my parents was a love for people,” stressed Maysles, in what might be the first lesson for any good documentary filmmaker.
Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.