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Straight Talk from Documentarian Albert Maysles

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire June 13, 2011 at 3:26AM

At 84, veteran documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles ("Grey Gardens," "Gimme Shelter") has lost none of his spark. At the Sheffield Doc/Fest, which wrapped this weekend, Maysles accepted the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.
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At 84, veteran documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles ("Grey Gardens," "Gimme Shelter") has lost none of his spark. At the Sheffield Doc/Fest, which wrapped this weekend, Maysles accepted the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.

"We've got to get on to filming good people doing good things," he said in accepting the honor at City Hall. "Enough of this war stuff. Let us, as I am hoping to do, film people who are ardently working for making peace. Hollywood has always been, and still is, devoted to films where there conflict. Let's see how people are at their best."

Maysles kept war docs out of the picture during a masterclass he gave the following day to a sold-out house at the Lyceum Theater. Below are some key highlights (filmmakers, take note):

Get Up Close and Personal

Let it happen. Be in the right place at the right time and then you'll have a film, especially if the camera person, as Orson Welles described, has a poetic eye. Get close to your subject; a technique you don’t see on TV (they’d rather take a shortcut.) Do it, so that the viewer can experience what that person on the screen is experiencing.

Connect so closely, heart to heart with the person you're filming, so that you feel that person's experience. In that process, there’s a humanizing of that person. To put it another way: To do exactly what you don’t see in TV. [There] the human factor is thrown out of the window.

Bob Drew, one of the makers of "Primary," I saw him recently. He showed me a film he made of his own experience in the second world war. I thought it was very good. I said, 'The History Chanel does so many war films. Why not hand it them?' He said, 'Oh, I showed it to them. I asked, 'What happened?' He said, 'Oh, it was too personal.' But that's exactly what we need in our filmmaking!

Don't Fuss

Just let it happen. Get it as it's happening. No staging, no narration, no host. You have the privilege to see what other people go through.

Establish a Common Ground

We can do much in the process of documentary filmmaking to achieve what a famous anthropologist said is the most important thing - which is to establish a common group for all of us. So that we feel close to people of others colors, nationalities, standards, politics and so forth.

You know them [through my films], more than you ever would have before. Whereas you never would have any idea of them... that clearly, that personal, that direct, without the films. The glory of documentary filmmaking is that it puts you there.

Value Your Team

Editors and camera crew deserve equal credit. A more appropriate title would be filmmakers. I don’t feel comfortable with my label. We’re not really directing anybody when anything happens.

You might want to check out this (full-length!) film directed by Albert Maysles, "Gypsy Caravan, When The Road Bends." (Courtesy our ever-loving corporate parent, Snag Films.)

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This article is related to: Features, Interviews, Sheffield Doc/Fest





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