Documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles speaks with a gravelly baritone marked strongly by the dropped r’s and broad a’s of Dorchester, the working-class section of Boston where he grew up. And he has the memories to go along with it.
“I’d get into a fight every day [defending my Jewishness], and after one of those fights, I saw this little kid in the circle… [and] he was crying,” said Maysles in a recent interview with the Forward at the screening room of his production company, Maysles Films. “It was my brother. It was a long walk home, and I held his hand.”
Over the next four decades, the two boys who walked home holding hands that day would become two of America’s most influential filmmakers, credited by some with pioneering the style of “direct cinema,” the behind-the-scenes, real-life method that shuns narration and music soundtracks. At 77, Albert Maysles is one of America’s most honored documentary filmmakers, acknowledged by French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard as “the best American cameraman.” With his late brother David (and later with colleagues Susan Froemke and Charlotte Zwerin), Maysles made dozens of notable documentary films, including “Salesman” (released in 1968, and chosen in 1992 by the Library of Congress as one of “the top 25 American films for historical, cultural and aesthetic significance”), “Gimme Shelter” (1970) and “Grey Gardens” (1976) — works that addressed the American obsession with success, its smiling suppression of the realities of class and ethnic differences, its cult of celebrity and crime, and its obsession with family values.
Maysles Films, the company he founded in 1963 with his brother — who passed away in 1987 — currently has more than half a dozen projects in the works, but the most important one to Maysles is the first of his films ever to focus on a Jewish theme: “The Jew on Trial,” a documentary about the notorious 1913 blood libel trial in which a Ukrainian Jew, Mendel Beilis, was wrongly accused of the murder of a 13-year-old Christian boy.
His interest in the Beilis case dates back to a childhood visit from a Russian-born relative. “He sat me down and asked me whether I knew about the Dreyfus case,” he remembered. “He told me all about pogroms and Mendel Beilis. The story that was told to me as a child remained there. I identify very strongly with Beilis — an ordinary person, like my parents were ordinary people—caught in this web of antisemitism.”
Maysles admits that the direct cinema technique will have to be adjusted to explain the Beilis story, but he insists that it can work. “The blood libel myth is alive today,” he notes. “Mendel Beilis’s daughter, Raya, is still with us, and many descendants of the people involved are still with us. Films that purport to show blood libel as fact are being shown on Arab television today.” As an example, Maysles points out “Al-Shatat” (“The Diaspora”), a Syrian-Lebanese miniseries broadcast during Ramadan last year by Hezbollah’s satellite television network that allegedly depicted a classic antisemitic blood libel: A rabbi enlists one of his congregants to help him kidnap and murder a Christian child, whose blood they drain and use to bake matzo that is then served to the congregation on Passover.
“The Beilis case isn’t over,” he insisted. “We are going to portray the ongoing perpetuation of a myth. The film will follow the historical Mendel Beilis through the trial and its aftermath, based on his autobiography and the many descriptions of his trial and behavior in the world press, [and] we plan to touch upon other instances of blood libel accusations.”
Documentary films aren’t Hollywood blockbusters and even a documentarian of Maysles stature finds it a challenge to raise funds. “The Jew on Trial” is now about one-third finished; Maysles has raised roughly a third of the funds necessary to complete the film through a foundation that he declines to name, and is working on raising the rest of the money. He will release the film on DVD and, if possible, secure television showings.
At the core of Maysles’s fierce artistic code is the belief that an artist draws upon the wellsprings of his earliest experiences. In fact, the proposal for “The Jew on Trial” begins with a quotation from Albert Camus: “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to re-discover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” Maysles’s mother, Ethel Epstein Maysles — a schoolteacher who wished she had been named Emma after her heroine, Emma Goldman — was a lifelong advocate of civil rights and civil liberties, and his father, Philip, was a postal worker who died a year before retirement.
As a child, Maysles was fascinated by photography but was never trained academically in filmmaking. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, he taught the subject at Boston University for three years. In 1955, he decided to take his camera inside Russian mental institutions, to which he gained access after a series of fortuitous meetings. Proceeds from the sale of the Russian footage to a pharmaceutical company enabled him and David to begin early forays into documentary filmmaking. Maysles was hired by Robert Drew to work with Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker as a cameraman on “Primary,” an account of the 1960 presidential campaign, now considered a landmark in documentary cinema and an enduring classic of political filmmaking.
The “direct cinema” style — Maysles rejects the phrase “cinéma vérité” as pretentious — is commonly attributed to technological advances in the creation of the hand-held camera and synchronous sound equipment, which freed the filmmaker to record raw life as it unfolded. But technology is merely the means. “Direct cinema” is also a practiced philosophy, and Maysles remains its high priest.
In addition to the Beilis project, Maysles is completing work on a film about the klezmer musician David Krakauer, and a documentary on Jewish inmates of Sing Sing, the maximum-security prison in New York.
While he works on new releases, DVD re-releases of his earlier works are introducing Maysles to a new generation. “Every semester our students rediscover the Maysles Brothers, and they are amazed by their films. They are not fast, they’re not flashy, but after a while, the kids get into it,” George Stoney, professor of film and television at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “The Maysles Brothers are just good storytellers. And a good story will always be current.”