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Advice to Doc Filmmakers from Albert Maysles: Establish an Empathizing Relationship

Advice to Doc Filmmakers from Albert Maysles: Establish an Empathizing Relationship

Jessica Edwards recently published a book of essays she edited, where she asks documentary filmmakers to tell her something — specifically, some words of advice for  other documentary filmmakers.  In this excerpt, direct cinema hero Albert Maysles shares his advice for other doc filmmakers.

For more information and to buy a copy of the book, visit the book’s website here, and if you’re in New York this week, Edwards is hosting a panel with documentary filmmakers as a part of DOC NYC’s Masterclass panels.  Join her and filmmakers Amir Bar-Lev, Shola Lynch, Liz Garbus, Marshall Curry and Doug Block Wednesday at 3:30 PM at the IFC Center for advice on how to make your film happen.  More information on the panel can be found here.

A documentary filmmaker needs to be patient and believe in the process of discovery. Orson Welles described the observational method of allowing things to happen on their own, as divine accidents. We have so much freedom in shooting now; cameras can run eight hours before you have to change cards. It’s good to let shots run a little longer, especially if you feel that there maybe more things to come. In “Salesman,” the opening scene, it seems to be all over, you can see that he isn’t going to make the sale. Suddenly, on her own, the little girl gets up off of her mother’s lap and goes to the piano and plays a number that is so appropriate to the salesman’s down and out emotional state. We would have lost that if we had cut earlier.

Authenticity is at the core of a good documentary. You are giving a picture of really what’s going on. So there is a proximity to reality. You are filming people experiencing something so the viewers, when they watch the film, are having that experience for themselves. This allows the viewer to find a common ground as fellow human beings.

In the process of filming, you are best off not intruding. And it’s very important right from the start to form a relationship with your subject where you are trusted. This way they are allowed to do what comes naturally, to disclose rather then to keep secret. This authenticity and ability to empathize comes from the cameraperson and the director. These are the words that keep coming up for documentary; empathy, experience, open-mindedness.

I would have the same advice for life. Establish an empathizing relationship. Mostly, with your eyes, so upon meeting someone they will, from the start, catch something in your eyes that indicates there is empathy.
And then the rest of your relationship, the empathizing guarantees the subject to continue being himself or herself.

Selected Filmography: “Salesman” (1968), “Gimme Shelter” (1970), “Grey Gardens” (1975), “Running Fence” (1977), “The Beales of Grey Gardens” (2006), “The Gates” (2007).

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