Documakers Hail the Impact of Albert Maysles

albert maysles dead obit
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Before his death last month at the age of 88, legendary documentary filmmaker, Albert Maysles was in post-production on what would become one of his last films, “In Transit.”

The docu, about the passengers aboard the busiest long-distance train route in America — Amtrak’s Empire Builder — will bow in Tribeca’s world documentary feature competition.
Together with brother David, who died in 1987, Maysles directed many of the documentary genre’s seminal films including “Grey Gardens,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Meet Marlon Brando” and “Salesman.”

“In Transit,” which Albert Maysles co-directed with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu, was assembled out of three trips on the Empire last winter, with each of the five directors filming separate subjects.

“This film in many ways represents a return to Albert’s (classics),” Walker says. “Yes, it’s different than a lot of other Maysles films in that this one is about many people, almost a tapestry, rather than being a portrait. But it’s also very (classic) Albert in that it’s a very pure, observational film.”

While whistleblower tales (“Citizenfour”) and deep-dive investigative documentary fare (“The Jinx”) are trending in the nonfiction market, “Indian Point” helmer Ivy Meeropol believes that Maysles-inspired cinema verite style is still “alive and well.”

But fellow veteran docu filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg point out that the nonfiction, unscripted landscape has made a dramatic shift since the Maysles brothers followed four salesmen selling expensive Bibles to people who couldn’t afford them in the 1968 feature “Salesman.”

“Getting funding now demands (filmmakers) know what they are going to get and how they are going to get it,” Stern says. “For early documentary filmmakers it was enough to just capture windows into lives because audiences weren’t seeing that (sort of thing) 24/7. That’s obviously changed.”

“There is a different expectation for documentaries now,” adds Sundberg. “As a filmmaker, you’re always on this journey of discovery, but you’re also aware of the demands on the content and what people want — something with a beginning, middle and end; a dramatic arc that crescendos.”

While Maysles’ cinema verite portraits may or may not withstand the test of time, Meeropol, Stern and Sundberg do think Maysles’ approach to capturing characters will be a legacy not soon forgotten.

“While I love the work of Frederick Wiseman, there is a bit of coldness there that the Maysles brothers broke through,” Meeropol says. “To quote Albert, the film is sort of the beginning of a love affair between the filmmakers and the subjects. Some filmmakers make targets of the subjects they film; that’s not our way. I’d like to think that I’m like that in my approach.”

For Stern and Sundberg, when it came to following Che “Rhymefest” Smith for “In My Father’s House,” the co-directors say that they aimed to build the same kind of “trust and connection that the Maysles brothers were able to create with their subjects.”

But for Ido Mizrahy, director of bullfighter doc “Gored,” the Maysles’ choice of character gave him courage.

“In ‘Salesman’ (the brothers) made the choice to follow these guys who sell something that is very dear to people’s hearts,” Mizrahy says.

“But for the salesmen it’s really just their business, their work, their livelihood. (The Maysles brothers) not only found interest in that but got behind the humanity in those characters you otherwise might want to run away from. I found that really inspiring, especially when it came to ‘Gored.’ In the modern world, who wants to hear about a bullfighter? There is something so disgusting and brutal about it. To reserve judgment takes guts. (The brothers) were brave filmmakers.”

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