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Documentary Comes to Harlem: The Maysles Cinema

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Documentary Comes to Harlem: The Maysles Cinema

Gentrification puts its best foot forward in a storefront just north of 125th Street in Harlem. The welcoming space houses a three-part business headed by documentary pioneer Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Salesman, Gimme Shelter.)

At Maysles Films, the film production arm, Maysles, his directing partner Bradley Kaplan, and their production team make documentaries as well as ads and other commissioned projects to help pay the bills. (Their latest doc, Muhammad and Larry, was part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.) The educational branch of the operation, which includes after-school programs, a summer intensive, and a new class for adults, teaches people from the neighborhood—mostly middle school and high school students from Harlem and the Bronx—how to make their own films. And the Maysles Cinema screens a rich lineup of documentaries and a smattering of realistic narrative features, many of them tied directly to the life or history of the neighborhood. The cinema’s screenings illustrate what its mission statement describes as “the Maysles Brothers’ principle that the lives of ordinary people not only deserve, but demand, our attention.” Each is followed by a discussion between the audience and people who were somehow involved with the film, usually as filmmakers or subjects.

The business was started when Al Mayles and his wife, Gillian, moved from the Upper West Side to Harlem five years ago. “After seeing a screening at the old Pioneer theater, they thought they’d contribute to their new neighborhood. It was really my mother who came up with the idea of starting a small movie theater,” says their son Philip, now the co-programmer of the cinema in collaboration with Jessica Green, the former editor of Stress magazine.

Two of the couple’s three daughters also work there, both as volunteers. Facilities Manager Rebekah Maysles manages the space; Sara is new media director. The small staff also includes Development Director Jason Fox and Education Director Vee Bravo.

True to the collaborative spirit that animates the cinema, the staff take turns fielding interview requests. I talked to Philip Maysles and Bravo at the cinema on a recent Friday afternoon.

Laura Coxson and Albert Maysles

Elise Nakhnikian: Do the three parts of the business operate separately or is there a lot of overlap?

Philip Maysles: The common thread is probably Al. In addition to making films upstairs with his production team, he comes to about 30 percent of the screenings. He’s often a participant in the discussions we have after screenings about documentary films, and he documents the Q&As himself. He’s a great resource in terms of calling on favors from his documentary peers to let us show their films for cheap, since it’s a by-donation-only theater.

I also think his humanism filters down to the programming. Jessica and I treat him like one of the independent curators who help curate the program. For instance, he’s really passionate about the fact that on TV all you see is coverage of war and the peace movement doesn’t get to shine, so he organized a series called “What We Want is Peace.” And when he started out, Russia was considered the most extreme other, so he went there and shot. It turns out a lot of his cohorts—D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock—did the same thing when they started shooting, so we’re putting together a series of early direct cinema on Russia.

He’s very enthusiastic about the films, and his energy and spirit drives us all to work that much harder.

Vee Bravo: I think where Al has been vital [in the educational programs] is in working with the students in two things: in thinking about how to engage the subject matter of your film in a humane way, and in moving away from thinking about just extracting information from your characters to thinking about how to build relationships when you’re going into a shoot. He’s been very useful in grounding people in how making a documentary is a people business, more than anything else, if you want to get the desired result.

When he shows his work, the students can see how swiftly he can move into a room and tell a story, without a lot of introduction, because of all the work he’s done in advance. Al has shot a diverse group of people who have become historic icons, from the Beatles to JFK to Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali. You look at the material he gets from them and wonder, how did you get them to say that? I think he really shines in the preparation and in being a people person, even more than in the finished project.

EN: What else do you teach in your filmmaking classes?

VB: We focus on a personal production plan: writing a proposal. How to create a narrative treatment for a documentary, how to package that for funders. How to build story, how to flush out the narrative arc and work towards building a resolution.

We look at budgets that were approved for everything from public television down to cable outlets, identify the people involved on budget lines and what those roles mean, and talk about the producer’s liabilities. We look at single-character documentaries, multiple-character documentaries, documentaries where the producer is the main storyteller, narrative versus verité, voiceover versus title cards. We spend a lot of time on how to seduce people in the writing—how to start out not with the issue but with a moment that sort of pulls you in. We talk about identifying what makes an effective production team and recognizing your own blind spots, learning how to build teamwork and when to ask for help, moving away from this idea that, as a grassroots filmmaker, you will do everything yourself.

In developing the curriculum, I’ve been driven by this notion that the people in the community need to become better storytellers. With the advances in technology we’ve gotten greater access to computers and cameras, but that doesn’t necessarily make us effective storytellers. I tell my students, let’s focus on a simple story and figure out a way to make it engaging and interesting. Ask yourself: What’s a story that needs to be told, and why am I the best person to tell it?

EN: You seem to be both an art-house documentary cinema and a social justice organization that uses film as a way to open hearts and minds. How do you define yourself?

PM: I like to think of this place as a shared public resource where people are involved with each other and film is the focus: making films, watching films, and selecting the films we want to present. Film is important only for its ability to move people. Once you’ve been moved, you’re inspired to act, either by producing your own films or by having these conversations.

This is a low-cost public space where film is the centerpiece around a lot of social activity. There are some nights where the main event is not even a film—it may be a slide show or a live performance. There’s a great folk singer named Manno Charlemagne, who was once the mayor of Port-au-Prince, who agreed through a mutual friend to come up and perform for Haitian Flag Day on May 18. We wanted some film element, and it turns out there are some French women who made an hour-long film about him, so we’ll show that before his performance.

VB: This is not a place that defines itself by pointing fingers and saying other things are bad. It’s more about filmmakers and people bringing us things and saying “We don’t see this enough, or ever.” It’s more about, I think, identity politics than reactionary politics, more like, “I want to say something,” or “Can we talk about this?”

I think where the social justice comes in is the reality of the industry we’re in when it comes to people of color and the politics that surround that. We don’t get to tell our own stories much. When you look at the programming for the places that produce or distribute documentaries, what’s the narrative, for instance, on immigration? In just about every movie you see, everything starts when the immigrant gets here. It’s all about their struggles and assimilation here in the U.S. But that’s not the perspective of an African-American or a Latin-American family. We’re shifting the lens, so you can see things from the perspective of people of you don’t usually hear from.

Maysles Cinema

EN: How has being based in Harlem affected what you show at the Cinema?

PM: My parents really fell in love with the neighborhood. The Upper West Side building they lived in had begun to change a lot in terms of the people who were moving in. They thought about Brooklyn, but when they came here they fell in love with the warmth of the community. People say hello to each other and have conversations on the street. I kind of nudged them in this direction too, because I’ve always had an interest in black culture. The cultural contributions of African-Americans are perhaps the most important that define what it means to be American. So we wanted to create programming that was kind of about the neighborhood but not prescriptive, not just films about Martin Luther King or jazz or something like that.

Harlem is so full of talent, and we’re blessed to be able to tap into that. We’ve partnered with various organizations and independent curators, local historians and activists and people who just knock on the windows and have an idea about a film they want to see. I’d say about 50 percent of the films we show are selected by independent quote-unquote curators. We’d like to get to the point where it’s 70 to 80 percent.

The first film we showed was selected with a woman who grew up and lives here and had started a documentary film night on her own. A gentleman who’s a reggae performer and DVD producer does a Caribbean film showcase. We put a series together with members of the Young Lords and the Black Panther party. Michael Adams, who’s a local architectural historian and preservationist, helped us put together a series called Homo Harlem, and some graffiti artists helped us do art for a series on graffiti in Harlem. Lydia Bloom, who was at the Museum of the Moving Image and is now at Columbia, presents a new documentary showcase every other month. The other day, on the suggestion of a guy who’s crazy about rollerblading, we showed a film about rollerblading and they set up a ramp outside. That drew in a lot of people.

EN: There were many years, before Magic Johnson put in his theater ten years ago, when Harlem didn’t even have a mainstream multiplex. Do you think the people who lived here lost the habit of seeing movies in theaters, or did they just take the train to another part of town whenever they wanted to go to the movies?

PM: Not only was there no movie theater here for a long time, but there was no fulltime independent movie theater north of Lincoln Center until we came along.

Years ago, they used to show films at the Apollo and at the Victoria theater next door. When they closed down, the way people started watching movies changed. You walk down 125th Street and there’s a whole array of DVDs about Harlem and life here.

VB: I’m not from here, but my experience with this place and films is that I’ve seen a lot of movies about Harlem, but when I was watching those films there was never an opportunity to come and watch movies here, which I think is kind of ironic. I think that’s symbolic of the problems a lot of people have with documentary films: A lot of people come here from elsewhere to get material and then their films are shown someplace else, so they become a kind of ethnographic study.

EN: How successful have you been in drawing people in? Are your audiences growing?

PM: I think people are a little confused about what’s going on here because it’s not a conventional movie theater—a big space with a 35mm projector. I think it takes inviting people in to check out a screening.

Our average is 26 people per screening, but it ranges from a handful to a full house. The more partners we have involved, the more outreach and promotion is done. That’s a great way to build our audience, but a lot of people turn out to see one film on a subject they’re interested in and don’t come back for anything else.

EN: What were your most popular shows?

PM: Good Hair was really popular. So are films about specific local issues. There’s one about the rezoning of 125th Street, and another about an artist called Franco the Great, who at one point had painted 135 of the metal grates on 125th Street that are now getting torn out.

The films that we’ve done where there’s kind of a celebrity or filmmaker who’s a notable NY character in the Q&A afterward are always well attended. We showed a couple of rarely seen hip hop films and Schoolly D, who’s considered the first gangster rapper, came out and did a Q&A.

Sometimes we rent out the theater for a night or two. People show whatever they want, but if it’s somewhat in line with our mission we’ll put it on our calendar. One collector said he wanted to show blaxploitation films and documentaries from the ’70s, but he was much more excited about showing Blacula than any documentaries. It was a whole different audience that came out for that.

EN: The discussions you always hold with the audience after your screenings are an important part of your mission. How much do you program for the Q&A after and how much for the film itself?

PM: We don’t rule out a movie because aesthetically or formally it’s not the greatest thing if it raises important topics for discussion. That’s one distinction between us and the more straightforward independent film houses. There isn’t necessarily a great discussion every night, but we try our best to build it out, with the filmmakers or some of the subjects of the film or with other stakeholders in the issues that were raised.

After a series of Congolese films we did, there were some really lively debates each night among Africans and African-Americans. The feedback we got was that these were some of the most complex and powerful discussions of the Congo that anyone had heard in the English language.

I think filmmakers often feel an excitement about coming up here. People here are free to speak their minds, so they really get to hear their opinions about what they saw.

EN: It seems to me that the direct cinema form of documentary, which was pioneered in large part by Al Mayles and his brother David, is a kind of granddaddy of reality TV, in the sense that the goal is to capture people acting as if there were no camera in the room. There are also some pretty profound differences between the two, of course, but I wonder if reality TV ever works as kind of a hook to draw people in to your stuff, especially your educational programs.

VB: The young people in the community see themselves in some of the reality shows and the shows on BET that pick people from this neighborhood and turn them into characters, and they struggle to relate to that reality. What’s celebrated is usually either street culture or basketball culture, even criminal activity to some extent. That’s a good opportunity for us to kind of intercept. That’s where the institute has its power, to tell kids, I see you’re struggling with certain things. What do you want to express?

PM: I think the films and the programs here are an alternative to reality television. Watching reality TV is a very passive thing. Going to the movies is a shared experience, and we emphasize engagement and community involvement at all levels. I think people come here to escape the disengagement and passivity and alienation they experience in other parts of their lives.

Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.