Sitting at his new desk in a recently renovated office overlooking Lenox Avenue at 116th Street in west Harlem, filmmaker Albert Maysles offers up a pet peeve. He proposes that “the most advanced kind of cinematography, technically, is to be seen in the television commercial. But what’s lacking is what you might more likely find in an amateur’s work: the heart-to-heart connection. There’s no emotional or human element in a commercial.”
Though Maysles himself is no amateur, the pursuit of that elusive “human element” has provided the crux of his career. A founding father of cinema vérité in the U.S., the 80-year-old director was one-half of the team (his brother, David, passed away in 1987) behind such masterpieces of nonfiction filmmaking as Salesman, their deep portrait of door-to-door Bible hucksters, and the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert film, Gimme Shelter. The brothers’ cult monument Grey Gardens—an extended visit with two eccentric Bouviers living in the desuetude of a crumbling and cat-filled Long Island mansion—popped back into the greater zeitgeist in 2006 through the theatrical and DVD release of a feature’s worth of new footage in The Beales of Grey Gardens, as well providing the unlikely basis for a surprisingly successful and critically acclaimed Broadway musical that’s been running since November.
But recently, Maysles has been around a cadre of young filmmakers who didn’t know much at all about this formidable vitae. After Albert moved his operations into a renovated Harlem brownstone last year, a close-knit Maysles team, spearheaded by his son Philip, created a program designed to teach documentary filmmaking to disadvantaged youth—Maysles-style. The group partnered with the Incarcerated Mothers Program, part of Edwin Gould Services for Children and Families, an East Harlem–based organization that creates activity programs for children with parents in prison. Launched under the name “On Our Side,” a pilot course with half a dozen youngsters aged eight to 12 ran successfully on a shoestring budget this past summer, and the organizations are now gearing up to continue and expand the program early this year.
So far, Maysles likes the results he’s seen. “They can really do it,” he says. “I’d rather have the amateur—without the technical skill, but with the kind of poetry you’re more likely to find in these kids.”
On Our Side is only one facet of an innovative congeries of business, philanthropic, and artistic initiatives currently brewing inside the Maysles brownstone on Lenox Avenue. The site includes a floor devoted to for-hire production, editing and storage space for Maysles’s own current projects, and facilities for the archiving and distribution of the brothers’ back catalog. The commercial Maysles Films company shares the building with the newly minted nonprofit Maysles Institute, which oversees the On Our Side program, as well as an adjacent two-floor storefront that’s now being renovated into a 75-seat cinematheque. When finished, the theater will be the only dedicated facility for screening repertory and noncommercial cinema north of Symphony Space on 95th Street. The cinematheque has already brought on a full-time curator, Michael Chaiken; the former programmer of Philadelphia’s International House plans a calendar thick on documentary series and community-interest work.
The overarching Maysles project began—as many things do in New York—with a real estate venture. For decades, Maysles and his family lived in a narrow apartment in the Dakota on Central Park West. His wife, a realtor, “had the idea that since our kids were all in their twenties, we really needed much more space,” he says. “Living in the Dakota wasn’t big enough.” Unsurprisingly, given the building’s legendary status, the sale of the apartment provided them with a generous influx of capital, enough to buy three buildings in Harlem, all within a few blocks of one another. Maysles says they were lucky enough to purchase the buildings prior to a recent spike of interest in uptown properties, adding, “I understand that the value has doubled since we bought them only half a year ago.”
The impetus for On Our Side came from Philip Maysles’s experiences working with another nonprofit. “I was at a summer camp called In Arm’s Reach,” the bearded 27-year-old painter explains, “a really small operation for kids whose parents are incarcerated, but it was small and a bit disorganized. One day we got some video cameras and we all did a short movie together. The rest of the summer we did video diaries, taught them editing. There was this one guy there, Ernie Drucker, who said we should really keep this going.” Drucker, now on the board of the Maysles Institute, is a Soros Fellow and epidemiologist as well as an active proponent of drug-law reform.
“Drugs and jail are connected through the Rockefeller drug laws,” Albert Maysles notes, referring to the notoriously harsh set of laws, first enacted under Governor Nelson Rockefeller, that mandate lengthy prison sentences for the possession of relatively small amounts of notably disparate drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. According to a 2006 report by the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York, the number of women incarcerated since the advent of the Rockefeller laws in 1973 has increased almost 630 percent, and nearly three-quarters of those women currently in jail are mothers. The report states that children with parents in jail, in addition to facing emotional hardship and disrupted family life, “are more likely than their peers to become involved in illegal activity, to abuse substances, and to have difficulties in school,” and an inordinate amount risk further separation from their families through foster care placement.
Laura Fernandez, program director at the Incarcerated Mothers Program (IMP), works to increase options for these at-risk kids. When the Maysles Institute approached IMP with the concept, she says, “I was very excited by it because I’m a big believer in the creative arts, and in kids being given opportunities to learn new skills and to meet with people like this and have an experience that they wouldn’t normally have. I feel like poorer kids get cheated out of art and creativity in their schooling.”
Viewing some of the output so far from On Our Side’s pilot program, one sees the heretofore untapped talents and creative ambitions. In one of the first assignments, the kids were given small cameras to take home to make videos. Most of the kids came back with casual tapes of their family or pets, but an otherwise shy 12-year-old we’ll call Christine (to protect her privacy) showed up with a 10-minute interview with the owner of Rao’s restaurant on East 114th Street. In the clip, set up like a television chat, Christine wears a smart pink suit and asks her questions from memory without cue cards. “She’s all set to be a journalist,” Philip Maysles says with a laugh. “I mean, that’s when we knew that she was really serious about this.”
While Downtown Community Television in Lower Manhattan has offered Pro-TV, a documentary production program for older teenagers, since 1978, On Our Side gears itself toward the younger set. And whereas DCTV focuses on community reportage and political engagement on the youth-media model (a recent production, for example, documents the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans), On Our Side is more open-ended, showing kids the possibilities of using nonfiction filmmaking for more personal expression—how to suss out the “human element” of a moment. On Our Side’s Laura Coxson reports that the children were versed in “the Maysles tradition: Shoot a little bit of your home life, what you do know, and then a bit of what you don’t know.” Rather than strict assignments, she says, the topics “just emerged out of doing it.”
Christine, for example, created a series of segments about her home life and family, including a winsome portrait of her foster brother pouring cereal from a box twice as big as his head, and a document of her grandmother’s sumptuous Puerto Rican cooking; Christine shoots herself eating shrimp in a single shot from the nose down as she narrates. “Everybody wanted to be on camera,” Christine told the Voice, “but my grandma, I had to pursue. I kept on asking her to please,
please, please say yes!” So Phil Maysles offered her some time-honored vérité advice. “He said if a person doesn’t want to get on [camera], we should leave them alone, and then later when we ask them again, they might say yes.”
Another participant created a music video to rapper Juelz Santana’s “Clockwork” by shooting clocks in stores, in restaurants, and on the streets of his neighborhood. The result captures the flavor of Harlem in the summertime; a shot of a tired-looking woman sitting beneath a clock in Burger King has the mark of a budding Rudy Burckhardt.
A number of kids, including Christine, created “video letters” for their parents, showing them bits of life back home. The Maysleses intended to send these as DVDs to the parents but so far haven’t been able to do so. (“Getting anything done in a prison is practically impossible— anything creative, anything different,” says Fernandez.) A screening for other family members is planned for the cinematheque when it’s complete. In the meantime, On Our Side is seeking more funding and people power to expand their operations, perhaps even franchising it to other communities. “We’re in touch with the right people,” Albert Maysles says hopefully. “We’re spreading our tentacles. . . . I see it getting more and more connected in the Harlem community.”