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The power of documentaries; the near life experience
Albert Maysles Film-maker
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See, there's no- there's no way to show these little pieces. A half hour film of Muhammad Ali- a half hour is kind of- it's not enough for most television. It should be an hour. And, and commercial television isn't interesting in making a show of anything that's other than their own. They do their own stuff and the hell with everybody else; which is really a major fault in mass communications. There are lots of people all excited, and properly so, getting involved in making a documentary of goodness knows what- but, but many- on many subjects that- that the public would respond to and would need- and, and with information that they would need to know for many reasons: know about health, know about politics, know about the world around them. I personally think that we never would have gotten into this Iraq War if there'd been- I don't know exactly what the film would be, but there's a documentary film that, had it been made, would have informed people that so much of what we were about to be told was not true and the government couldn't have stepped into Iraq with the public knowing that. So, there's an importance to what a documentary filmmaker can make beyond just making something- excuse me- beyond making something that's just entertaining. In fact, I've come to think that the word entertainment has taken on such a bad connotation because- not, not that the word is bad, except that if you look it up in the dictionary you see that it has two definitions. The first one is the one that most entertainment goes by- a diversion. How much more enlightening, how much more beneficial, how much more of good can be done, where entertainment would be of the second definition rather than the first. The second definition is that entertainment is an engagement: an engagement, in the case of documentary filming, an engagement with real life. An engagement where, for example, you see a film and you get to know somebody that, that it's beneficial to know; a person who's doing good things, not killing somebody, as is the subject matter of so much mass communication, but being of a generous sort, doing something that you never would have known of otherwise except that- oh, my goodness, I just saw this, what a wonderful person, I, I want my kids to see this film. How many times can a parent, having seen something on television, come away saying- oh, this would be great for my kids to see it, or my friends? Very little. Very little of desire to do that unless a parent is, is committed, or some kind of diversion. And so I've made some films that are anything but a diversion. I've made three films for HBO which is a kind of oasis in the mass media where, on HBO, at least a dozen very good documentaries are, are shown every year. I made a film on abortion where you got both sides of the issue. A film on hospice care where you got to know people who were dying- to, to witness that experience. But dying with the care of hospice workers who helped them go through that terrible period. I've come to think that, that the near death experience is such a revealing one of, of people at their most human. And I think it's true, but a film doesn't necessarily have to take place at that time in another person's life in order to, to get an understanding of what it is to be a person- a human being. And so, so I've come up with the expression: the near life experience. And I think a good documentary gets you that closer- that much close to the real person that, that it's a, a living, dramatic, wholesome experience that, that enlightens you as it entertains you. And, and I've made films that serve that purpose.

Albert Maysles (1926-2015) known for his important documentaries on Muhammad Ali, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles, pioneered the documentary style known as Direct Cinema. He helped create techniques still widely used in modern documentary production, as well as many of the techniques used in reality TV.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz Rebekah Maysles Sara Maysles

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Rebekah Maysles, daughter of Albert Maysles, is an artist living between New York and Philadelphia. She has her own line of clothing, Blackberryrose, and co-runs the store Sodafine in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York, a vintage and handmade store that sells clothing, books and other products made by artists.

Sara Maysles, daughter of Albert Maysles, is currently doing her BA in East Asian Studies at Columbia University, and working as an Archivist of the photographs and photographic material at Maysles Films Inc., Albert‚s film production company. She spent ten months out of two years working with Tibetan refugees at a center in Nepal, and continues to travel back and forth between America and Asia.

Tags: Iraq War, HBO, Muhammad Ali

Duration: 5 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008