If it wasn’t for Albert Maysles I would never have become a documentary filmmaker. I always wanted to make documentaries but I hated the thought of researching, producing, film crews and all the lights, sound and action of formal filmmaking. But when I watched Grey Gardens and witnessed the cinema verite filming style Al and his brother David used, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
Everything I learned about this film style was from studying his work and attending the documentary course at Maysles Cinema in Harlem. He watched an early cut of my documentary, Destiny’s Bridge, and we talked about it on the phone. “Right on” was his first remark. Al assured me that I was on the right track and invited me to have a rough cut screening at his cinema. He loved what he saw in the natural filming of the residents of Tent City. He commented on the way they lived together, the way they cooked and ate meals as a group and watched out for each other. That’s what he loved about documentaries and I think it’s why he made them.
He was a very kindhearted man who had a gift to see the hidden jewel in a person’s soul and to bring it out. He believed in the importance of being trusted by the characters in his films and giving them the freedom to be themselves. We should never forget his contribution to documentary filmmaking and his love for humanity.
BTW – My latest documentary, DESTINY’S BRIDGE, was shot entirely by the rules and procedures listed below that I learned from Albert Maysles.
ALBERT MAYSLES RULES AND BELIEFS FOR DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING
Copied from the website: Maysles Films
As a documentarian I happily place my fate and faith in reality. It is my caretaker, the provider of subjects, themes, experiences—all endowed with the power of truth and the romance of discovery. And the closer I adhere to reality the more honest and authentic my tales. After all, knowledge of the real world is exactly what we need to better understand and therefore possibly to love one another. It’s my way of making the world a better place.
Distance oneself from a point of view.
Love your subjects.
Film events, scenes, sequences; avoid interviews, narration, a host.
Work with the best talent.
Make it experiential, film experience directly, unstaged, uncontrolled.
There is a connection between reality and truth. Remain faithful to both.
DO’S AND DON’T’S…
-Hold it steady.
-Use manual zoom, not the electronic.
-Read as much of your camera’s manual as you can.
-Read a photography book on how to compose shots.
-Use the steady device that’s in the camera.
-Never use a tripod (exception: filming photographs, for example).
-You’ll get a steadier picture the more wide-angle the shot.
-In a walking shot go very wide angle.
-Hold the beginning and end of each shot. The editor will need that.
-Use no lights. The available light is more authentic.
Learn the technique but equally important keep your eye open to watch the significant moment. Remember, as a documentarian you are an observer, an author but not a director, a discoverer, not a controller. Don’t worry that your presence with the camera will change things. Not if you’re confident you belong there and understand that in your favor is that of the two instincts, to disclose or to keep a secret, the stronger is to disclose. It’s not “fly-on-the-wall.” That would be mindless. You need to establish rapport even without saying so but through eye contact and empathy. -Albert Maysles