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The power of documentaries (Part 1)

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The best way to approach documentary film making: truth and reality
Albert Maysles Film-maker
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When somebody makes a film with a- with a- with a plan, sometimes a very precise objective, to come up with some kind of a prejudgment as to what's going to take place, it- it doesn't do service to the documentary form. I remember reading Virginia Woolf's article about the cinema as she wrote it in 1926, and at one point she asked this extremely important question- what would it be if cinema were left to its own devices? Well I think there are special devices that, that go along with a fiction film. But for me, for me although there are various ways and legitimate ways in which to make a documentary- even, even as a work of propaganda I can see there's a legitimacy to it- but left to its own devices, doing what it does best, I think a documentary simply uses the best powers of observation on the part of the person behind the lens to, to put onto the film or tape exactly what's going on and representing people as no better, no worse, no different from what they really are. And then, and then you have to say that, that something truthful is going to come across. Now, the more perceptive the person with that camera, in a way the more different it would come up, the more different the result for another person also being very perceptive and truthful. But that doesn't lead to misinformation necessarily. It, it simply is seeing things that- and noticing the things that are truthful and significant and, and, and what one person is more aware of another person may not be so aware of but if perceptive, will come up with something equally truthful and important. I mean, there is- there is a connection between capturing what is real and telling the truth. The two go hand in hand. Truth and reality- they go hand in hand. And this idea which so many filmmakers use as an excuse, I think, for not being responsible and authentic and truthful, the excuse that well, for one thing, you know, in the editing everything's manipulated. Not- not in defiance of what is truthful in reality if the editor is a really good person, right? And of course, you know, well, the camera's there so that's going to affect everything. Not necessarily. When my brother and I made our major films like "Gimme Shelter" and "Grey Gardens" and "Salesman", I defy anybody to take a look now or 20 years from now or 500 years from now and say well, it's- it's- it's lacking in truthfulness. No, these films will hold up for as long as they can- and the images and the sound can attach themselves to the- to the medium. I'm sure of that. And it's been 30, 40, 50 years in the case of several of our major films including that and "Grey Gardens" and people have misrepresented the films from time to time but the misrepresentations don't hold up. In fact there's a scene in Grey- in "Gimme Shelter" where a Hell's Angel comes down with a knife on- on this black young man by the name of Meredith Hunter who was holding a gun. But all the reports at that time before the film was put together were that the, the black guy was holding the knife because that's the stereotype that we have of black people. And- but the film held up to be a bastion in many ways of what really went on. So if you really want to know what happened, take a look at the film.

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 Sara Maysles Rebekah Maysles

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

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.

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.

Tags: Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, Salesman, Virginia Woolf

Duration: 5 minutes

Date story recorded: September 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008