Documentary filmmaker, Albert Maysles, has met the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fidel Castro and Haile Selassie. Now he’s meeting some of the residents of Harlem. He moved from the Dakota to Central Harlem because “I felt it was time to move up in the world.”
“One difference is the sense of community,” he said. “Also we needed more space. We have four [adult] kids, so each of them could have their own place.”
The Maysles Institute opened in the spring of 2008. Albert Maysles wanted to create a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-class forum. As well as the documentary films and post-screening discussions with filmmakers, the Maysles Institute offers filmmaking classes to both children and adults.
“At the screening at the end of one of the children’s courses,” Maysles said grinning, “the kids were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Every one of them wanted to be a filmmaker.”
Albert Maysles is best known for “Grey Gardens” and “Gimme Shelter.” He believes that observing reality without preconceptions is the best way of knowing people better, and perhaps loving them more. His advice to aspiring documentary filmmakers is, “Get away from interviewing and using a narrator. Film things as they are.”
“I think people like to get out of their shell, and are fascinated by what goes on in the lives of other people. For one thing, they can learn something: maybe learn how to make a better life for themselves.”
In his open plan office above the cinema on Lenox Avenue, Albert Maysles’ gentle voice is sometimes barely audible above those of his staff at adjacent desks. “I am obsessed with making a film that inspires world peace,” he said, leaning in. “If there’d been a few documentaries concerning the lives of those people in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would have been that much more difficult to go to war.”
“We’re just beginning to get some of that. And people are beginning to have second thoughts.”
At 84, Albert Maysles is still inspired with new ideas for films. Among other projects, he’s working on an autobiographical documentary, a film about people he met on trains around the globe, a film about New York, and a film showing thirty different religions in five-minute segments.
Three of Albert Maysles’ four children, Rebekah, Sara and Philip, work for the Maysles Institute. His fourth child, an adopted daughter, spends half the year in India, her birth country. Philip Maysles, who is a visual artist, currently has work on display at new Harlem hotspot, The Red Rooster.
“Dad wanted us to live close with him in a more artistic, creative neighborhood,” said Philip. “We immediately fell in love with the character of this neighborhood. One of the first things that dawned on us was there was no independent cinema north of Lincoln Center.”
Philip and his colleague Jessica Green schedule the films together (pictured above sandwiching the Young Harlem Award). “My background in hip hop and media mesh well with Philip’s fine art sensibilities,” said Jessica.
“We’re the only cinema in the city showing documentaries exclusively,” said Albert. “It helps to put Harlem on the (film industry) map.”
Check out Maysles Institute at: www.mayslesinstitute.org.
Story and photos: #1, Albert Maysles ; #2, Philip Maysles and Jessica Green by Yolande Brener.