Documentary films are a notoriously tough sell, especially those that, in the cinema vérité tradition of Albert Maysles, favor careful observation over first-person editorializing. But the Maysles Cinema, a nonprofit theater in Harlem founded by Mr. Maysles, who, with his late brother David, made such landmark films as “Salesman” (1968) and “Grey Gardens” (1975), aims to show nothing but documentaries, and intends to build an audience through them, not in spite of them.
The cinema, which on Sunday will begin Strangers in Strange Lands, an 11-film series of travelogues by noted French directors, occupies the street level of a Lenox Avenue/Malcolm X Boulevard building (between 127th and 128th streets) that also houses the offices of Mr. Maysles’s production company, Maysles Films, as well as the Maysles Institute, which runs film education programs. The institute was launched three years ago, around the time the production company relocated to Harlem.
“We knew we’d use that space for teaching, but then it just made sense as an overall exhibition and teaching center,” the program coordinator of the institute and general manager of the production company, Laura Coxson, said. “It all kind of intermingles a little bit.”
The intermingling extends to the cinema’s programming, which is mostly overseen by the institute’s youth programs director, Philip Maysles, Albert’s son. The spirit is improvisational and highly collaborative. Even before it officially opened to the public in March, the theater teamed up with the Harlem group Doc Watchers to provide a venue for its screenings. Last month, Are U FO’ Real? a weekly series of UFO-related films chosen by the underground filmmaker George Kuchar, proved popular. In addition to the films he chose, Mr. Kuchar “did these really bizarre 20-minute pieces, very loosely based on the film that we were screening,” Ms. Coxson said. “So he made really funny connections you wouldn’t expect.”
This weekend, the cinema will embark on its most traditional curatorial venture, and perhaps also its most ambitious. Strangers in Strange Lands kicks off with a marathon screening of Louis Malle’s seven-part “Phantom India” and concludes August 6 with Jean Epstein’s restored 1929 film “Finis Terrae.” The films in the series, which also includes work by Chantal Akerman (whose “News From Home” turns a lens on 1970s New York), Jean Painlevé, Agnès Varda, and Jean Vigo, were selected by the assistant curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, Livia Bloom.
Though these documentaries provide glimpses into foreign lands, the cinema has no intention of disengaging from its immediate surroundings. Philip Maysles said that he hopes “this series represents the introduction of the Maysles Cinema as a satellite, uptown venue for the kind of independent and radical programming that is available downtown, in Brooklyn, and Queens. That said, our success depends equally upon our ability to generate programs that are organic to the political struggles and cultural triumphs of Harlem through collaboration with longtime residents.”
In keeping with the local spirit, Ms. Coxson said she wants to get more Harlem filmmakers to show their work at the cinema. She also emphasized the importance of offering what the cinema’s mission statement calls “a forum for the discussion of questions of social, racial, and economic justice.”
“This neighborhood, specifically right now, is going through all these changes,” she said. “It’s really important as a mostly all-white institution coming into Harlem that we’re at least addressing those issues.”
According to Philip Maysles, a series entitled “New York Changes” is in the works for the fall and will focus on city neighborhoods undergoing dramatic change, demographic or otherwise.
In addition to continued collaborations with Harlem-based institutions (the National Black Programming Consortium will present 10 films on black masculinity in September), the cinema also plans to add a 16 mm projector — for now, the cinema is limited to video projection — and to increase the amount of films it shows. But despite the planned improvements and the seriousness of the cinema’s mission, Ms. Coxson said that for now she is enjoying the idea that, in its informal approach to filling the calendar and using its space, the Maysles Cinema is a bit of a stranger in the strange land of the city’s more polished art houses.
“I like that it’s still rough,” she said. “It seems kind of un-New York in that way.”
By for the New York Sun.