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Film Community Pays Tribute to Albert Maysles

Film Community Pays Tribute to Albert Maysles

D.A. Pennebaker, Documentary Filmmaker

My friendship with Al was forged during four months of filming together, just the two of us, in Russia in 1959. When he got a camera against his eye he was one of the world’s great watchers, and I knew we would always be filmmaking companions.

Chris Hegedus, Documentary Filmmaker

Al was an inspiration to me and to many generations of filmmakers.  He was so generous and loving. This is a photo of Al and his first camera — an artist and innovator from the start. I am so grateful to have known him.

Kim Hendrickson, Executive Producer, The Criterion Collection

I had the good fortune to produce the Criterion editions of “Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens” and “Salesman,” and through those experiences, to befriend Albert and the wonderful people working with him at Maysles Films. Albert and his brother David attracted emerging talent because of their early work and approach to documentary, and they allowed those that entered the doors to become part of the creative family. Charlotte Zwerin, Susan Froemke, Muffie Meyer, Ellen Hovde, Xan Parker, Deborah Dickson; these are a few of the filmmakers at Maysles that, along with Albert, guided me through the intricacies of these productions, and in so doing, became mentors and friends. After all these years, I am still struck by the authorial credit on a Maysles Film production  — the “Film by” line. David and Albert recognized that filmmaking was a collaborative effort involving their teams — their editors, their producers — and that the end result was a shared celebration. The outpouring of love over the past few days is a testament to the generosity of spirit at Maysles which Al, after losing David, carried out over the course of his extraordinary life.

Thom Powers, Documentary Programmer, Toronto International Film Festival

Albert Maysles had a knack for finding the profound whether through his camera or his words. Four months ago, accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at DOC NYC, he got straight to the point, “What I’d like to say is a few words of devotion and love for the very medium of documentary that offers us the opportunity to make real the Biblical expression asking us to ‘love our neighbor.'”

Then he launched into an anecdote about trying to film the Grateful Dead after they had surreptitiously spiked his drink with acid. That points to another thing about Al: he had an uncanny knack for falling in with the right people at the right time. In 1960, he was recruited by D.A. Pennebaker to join the team making “Primary” and wound up taking the shot of John F. Kennedy pushing through a crowd to the podium that belongs on every cinema verite clip reel. A few years later, he and his brother David were called to film a British band making their first trip to America: The Beatles. Over the next decade they filmed with Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, the Rolling Stones and so on. Pennebaker once described Al to me as “bobbing like a cork on the ocean.” The feat isn’t that he got in the room with these folks, but that he came away with indelible depictions of them on celluloid. And he maintained that practice for over five decades.

It’s no wonder that so many people opened up to Al’s camera. He was one of the most charming men I ever met. More than just a filmmaker, he was an institution. The Maysles’ office was like a documentary training camp that nurtured the talents of Susan Froemke, Barbara Kopple, Deborah Dickson, Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, Bob Richman and hundreds of others. In New York City, Al was a constant presence at film events. It’s indescribable what it meant to have him in a room for younger filmmakers. He was a master and he was accessible. You just hoped some of his talent, luck or charm might rub off on you.

I marvel that in recent years while continuing to make films, he created the means to posthumously maintain a New York presence by starting the Maysles Cinema in Harlem. For all of us who took something from Al, one way to repay that debt will be working to ensure the continuation of those efforts and his legacy. Because a New York City without Maysles is too sad to contemplate.

Basil Tsiokos, Director of Programming, DOC NYC

Al Maysles has served as a direct, vital connection
to nonfiction’s past for those of us working within the documentary
world. To see him at various events in New York City, holding court and
sharing stories about his deservedly legendary body of work, always
injected a simultaneous sense of wonder and familiarity to the
proceedings – like having a beloved uncle or grandfather come for a
visit. He’s been such a constant, regular presence in our community that
his absence will always be felt going forward.

Laura Poitras, Documentary Filmmaker

Al touched so many lives with his camera – both the people he filmed, and the audience watching his images. Through his lens he expressed profound empathy for the world around him.  His work revolutionized non-fiction storytelling and inspired generations of filmmakers and audiences. He will be deeply missed.

Robert Duvall, Actor-Director

Albert was a genius of the documentary film world. He was a kind and generous friend. He left us with a great legacy and among the best documentaries that will ever be seen. He will be missed.

Sean Williams, Cinematographer

As long as cinema exists, Al is alive and relevant. The generosity of his spirit and his films have and will continue to inspire new expressions. To watch his films is to actually experience Al. It is a type of virtual reality, in fact. There is so much to miss about him: his laugh, his encouragement, his hands. But he is [still] absolutely vital and present for us.

Erika Dilday, Executive Director, Maysles Documentary Center

While we mourn the loss of Albert, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as inspiration to people around the world to be willing to push themselves creatively and take the time to observe and reflect on life as it unfolds.

Forever curious and always extending a warm hand, Albert Maysles was an important figure in the history of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “Grey Gardens” premiered at the 13th New York Film Festival in 1975 and Albert’s latest film, “Iris,” had its world premiere here at the 52nd NYFF almost six months ago. How touching that Albert passed away on the eve of the restored “Grey Gardens” re-opening here in New York City. The restoration is truly stunning and I can’t think of a better way for someone to pay tribute to Albert Maysles and his landmark documentary career than to watch the restored “Grey Gardens” at Film Forum this weekend.

Eugene Hernandez, Deputy Director, Film Society of Lincoln Center (also co-founder of Indiewire)

Albert was frequently connecting with people, always listening, ever inquisitive, whether hosting folks into his home or engaging in an extended conversation at a film festival. His films and the way he interacted with people truly inspired me. En route to the Full Frame Documentary Festival nearly ten years ago we bonded when our private plane flight to North Carolina was delayed due to mechanical problems and we spent hours on the ground at a diner in New Jersey. Albert spoke about being open to people, remaining curious and always listening. Once up in the air after the donated airplane was repaired, I snapped this photo of Albert interviewing his fellow documentary pioneer, the late Robert Drew. It was a wonderful weekend and over the years I have had the pleasure of talking with him at length on numerous occasions, recently in his living room alongside a bunch of colleagues from the Film Society.

Josh Safdie, Director

Al was one of those few artists where his vision was felt just being in his presence. Before I ever got to meet Al, his personality existed in a two-faced watch he created for [cinematographer] Sean [Price Williams]. It was designed so that no matter his arm’s position while shooting, the time could always be seen. The first time we physically connected, he threw his arm around Eleonore and me on a dance floor at the END of a night, asked where the next party was, held himself there for a moment and then commented on a bouquet of flowers. We saw the flowers before he mentioned them. He shared his vision in a strangely human way. 

Cheraine Stanford, Producer

Albert Maysles was the real deal. There was no artifice to him, no pretense. He was a kind soul who treated you like he had known you all his life the first time he met you. Above everything else, Albert cared about people. You could feel that in every frame of every film he ever made. When I was in film school, I couldn’t find examples of the kinds of films that I wanted to make. I started to wonder if I really had a place and a voice in the world of film. And then I found the work of Albert and David Maysles and my whole world changed. I knew that my gut instincts were right, that there was a way to make films about people in a way that felt genuine and not overdone. Albert taught me that it was okay to care deeply about the people you filmed and that you could tell a good story without relying on tricks and extras. I worked with Albert as an intern at Maysles Films in Harlem, New York for about a year. It was an absolute dream come true. He offered incredible advice and great hugs. He introduced me to honey on toast and showed me that if you love what you do, it doesn’t have to feel like work. Imagine watching his films, writing papers about him and actually getting to work beside him. When you meet someone like him, who you’ve admired from afar, meeting them in person turns out to be even more awesome than you could ever have imagined. It really can change your life. And it certainly changed mine. I had the courage to be the filmmaker I wanted to be because of Albert. We have lost one of the truly great ones.

Mystelle Brabbée, Festival Director, Nantucket Film Festival

Around 2003, I was at IFP Project Forum sitting in a round of “speed dating” meetings pitching a documentary project I was soon to finish.  Behind me, in meeting after meeting, pitch after pitch was Al Maysles, one of the most famous living documentary filmmakers trying to peddle his latest project.  His presence was heartening to everyone else in the room and came with a message that nothing was beneath him when it came to getting his stories out into the world.

Robert Redford, President & Founder of Sundance Institute

The strength of modern documentary filmmaking is built on a bedrock of creativity, innovation and uncompromising vision laid by pioneers like Albert Maysles. His influence on the genre is profound, and it will surely continue for years to come.

Tabitha Jackson, Director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program

The philosopher Bertrand Russell said that the Good Life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. I was reminded of this on learning the sad news that we have lost Al Maysles. His approach to documentary filmmaking and to the many filmmakers to whom he so generously gave his time, seemed to embody both. Love of the creative endeavor, of his subjects, and of the documentary community; and knowledge – knowledge he had accumulated over decades in which he (along with his brother David) helped to invent the form, both documented and changed the culture, and enabled us to come to know the ordinary and extraordinary people who were the subjects of his films. We at the Documentary Film Program were lucky enough to add a little support to “In Transit” – his last labor of love that will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. Thanks, Al. We hope you enjoyed the ride.

Joshua Neuman, Head of Content, GOOD Magazine

I’ve known Albert Maysles for a little over a decade.  He visited my late brother Jonathan at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Hospital for a never released documentary series he was working on about “death.” Before Jonathan got sick, he had played in a rock band and so he was beyond excited that the guy who made “Gimme Shelter” — perhaps the most important rock n’ roll documentary of all time — was coming to shoot him. Though Al and his cameraman were behind protective mask and gown and the circumstances were grim, it was one of the last truly magical times I remember having with my brother. Jonathan and Al discussed the history of Western Music — from Schumann and Chopin, to the early bluesmen, and of course, all the way through the Stones. Al also asked Jonathan question after question about his band, The Physicals, and made my brother feel like he was backstage at Altamont and not in a dreary corner of a cancer ward. After he was done, I vividly remember Al standing with me in the hallway just outside Jonathan’s room . “You know I had a brother who died?,” he said to me. “Of course. David,” I replied.  He teared up and told me that it didn’t necessarily get easier with time and I cried along with him. Though it is many years later and Jonathan is long gone, I still think a lot about that moment. As much as Al made Jonathan feel like a rock star getting to know Al was just as important to me. We stayed in touch through the years and every time we talked the theme was invariably “brothers.” My immediate reaction upon learning of his passing was that he was now with David. I’ll miss Al a lot, but never forget him. 

READ MORE: Here Are 7 Indiewire Stories on Albert Maysles Published Since 2000

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