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Remembering Albert Maysles (1926-2015)

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What Albert Maysles means to me is everything that’s good about documentary filmmaking. As an emerging documentary filmmaker, I am constantly looking for inspiration – in terms of filmmaking, but also in terms of living. I know that there is no set path to success, but it certainly seems that Maysles did it right.

While my adoration for the Beales of Grey Gardens (and their countless cats) is unwavering, the films of Maysles that have influenced me the most are the five films he made about Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Christo’s Valley Curtain, Running Fence, Islands, Christo in Paris and Umbrellas. They each document Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s arduous process of creating their large-scale, ephemeral artworks. These films are artworks in their own right and reveal how great films about art can influence any viewer who watches them.

In 2013, I was in the process of making a film about a remarkable sculpture here in the Toronto area and wanted to talk to Maysles about his own process. On August 27th of that year, I had the honour of interviewing him at his office in Harlem.

I was curious as to what had propelled Maysles to follow-up his legendary documentary about The Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter, with a film about controversial visual artists. He said, “Well, we were good friends to begin with, and the whole process of filming was a process of getting to know them better. And for them to know us better. The ‘us’ being my brother [David Maysles] and myself. And I love that aspect of the documentaries as we make them – becoming friends. And who becomes friends besides them and us? The millions of people who come to see the film.”

He then talked about the unique ability that documentaries about art have to bring audiences closer to artists and their artworks, which is a special experience indeed. He said, “What a gift, and what a closeness to the artist and to the art. More so than perhaps you would by actually being there. And that’s quite something.”

Our conversation inevitably strayed from art docs to the two films of his that he considered his own favourites, Grey Gardens and Salesman. These two films give audiences a glimpse into the lives of two very distinctive types of people, eccentric former socialites, and door-to-door bible salesman. He explained, “They both illustrate what I’m after, what I’m trying to do most.” He went on to say that after seeing the films, audiences “can understand and do understand a great deal of what is going on in America, and what perhaps might be corrected.”

Maysles was quick to reveal to me his enthusiasm for young people. It was clear how much faith he had in the future generations, and when I asked what his advice was for young filmmakers, his response was unexpected. Quoting the Dalai Lama, Maysles summed up his answer in one word, kindness. He said, “People have asked me, ‘How do you get it so that your subjects are not conscious of the camera?’ Well, they are conscious of the kindness, and that sets them free.”

At this point in the conversation, it became obvious to me that Maysles the filmmaker and Maysles the man shared a single vision – to use the power of kindness. It’s no surprise that before becoming a filmmaker, Maysles studied and taught psychology, and then subsequently made a film about mental institutions in the Soviet Union. While the films he made throughout the rest of his career were not as overtly focused on the psyche, they are unforgettably moving because the human element takes precedence.

When Maysles passed away, it represented an irrevocable loss to the film world. But the demand for the films he made remains. What I learned from Albert Maysles that day reaches far beyond making documentaries about art. He taught me that living and filmmaking do go hand in hand and that the way you live your life will determine the kind of filmmaker you are.

Simone Estrin is a Toronto-based documentary filmmaker whose current work explores issues in contemporary art. Her most recent film, A Shift in the Landscape, examines the battle to protect Richard Serra’s sculpture, Shift, from encroaching housing development. She holds an MFA in Documentary Media Studies from Ryerson University and currently works at the Ryerson Image Centre.

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