Television Broadcasting Tutorial 26

Albert Maysles and ‘Direct Cinema’ Documentaries

albert maysles 1

One of the most important and influential figures in the history of observational documentary-making died last month (March 2015).

Albert Maysles, who helped to shape a style of documentary called Direct Cinema with his brother David, crafted films that allowed the reality of life to take place in front of the camera without interference. His films contained an intense drama without the need for scripts or narration to heighten a sense of jeopardy. Instead, they relied on the raw truth of what was captured on film, and were all the more powerful as a result. Martin Scorsese was just one filmmaker who was inspired by Maysles. He wrote in 2008:

 “Al Maysles once quoted Orson Welles as a way of describing his own aspirations as a filmmaker: ‘The camera person should have an eye behind the camera that is the eye of a poet.’ So let me quote Welles, on Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine [Sciuscia], as a way of describing Al’s achievements as a filmmaker: ‘What De Sica can do, I can’t do… The camera disappeared, the screen disappeared, it was just life.’ ‘It was just life.’

That’s how I felt when I saw Robert Drew’s Primary, shot by Al and Ricky Leacock, for the first time. Like the extraordinary films Al later made with his brother David – Salesman, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens – this was a truly eye-opening experience, a real drama unfolding in real time. I was gripped by these pictures, by the force of their apparently simple images. And I realised right away that there was an extraordinary keenness of perception at work behind the camera, a sense of discretion but also a burning desire to grasp life in all its complexity – its beauty and its ugliness, its joy and its sorrow, all at once.

In fact, I can attest to this based on personal experience. I once had a job as Al’s assistant, and I had to ‘aim’ or ‘focus’ lights as needed. It was a tough job – I had to follow, even anticipate, his every move, and I could see how attuned he was to the world before his camera. It was like watching a master paint. Al truly does have the eye of a poet. Which is ultimately what makes the camera disappear, and give way to life.”

Here are descriptions of Maysles’s three most famous documentaries taken from his company’s website: Grey Gardens, Salesman and Gimme Shelter, which were all produced in the 1960s/70s. These are all worth seeing:

A brief interview with Maysles about his film-making style:

Students of non-fiction film-making study the work of Maysles to understand his vital place within its rich history. The two strands within this genre are Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite. Both of these similar yet distinctly different forms can be traced back to the Kino-Pravda movement (literally translated as ‘Cinema Truth’) of Dziga Vertov in Soviet Russia in the 1920s. His most influential film is called Man with the Movie Camera (1929).


But by the 1960s, the documentary-maker’s continued search for truth led to two different approaches practised in different continents. In North America, the philosophy of Direct Cinema stressed the necessity of the camera to have a strictly observational role, erecting an invisible wall between it and the subject; while in Europe – and in France in particular – Cinema Verite encouraged the camera to be more involved in the action, with different angles emphasising points within the narrative of the documentary. They even showed the camera and crew within shot to reveal the truth of what was really happening to the viewer.

Robert Drew, who produced/directed the hugely influential documentary Primary in 1960, explained how he perceived the differences between Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite:

“I had made Primary and a few other films. Then I went to France with Leacock for a conference [the 1963 meeting sponsored by Radio Television Française]. I was surprised to see the Cinema vérité filmmakers accosting people on the street with a microphone (Chronicle of a Summer).

My goal was to capture real life without intruding. Between us there was a contradiction. It made no sense. They had a cameraman, a sound man, and about six more—a total of eight men creeping through the scenes. It was a little like the Marx Brothers. My idea was to have one or two people, unobtrusive, capturing the moment.”

Below are interviews with Drew and Richard Leacock about the making of Primary and the philosophy of Direct Cinema behind their style and approach:

The collective work of all these celebrated programme-makers has led to what we now know as observational documentary: a style of factual film that is a mainstay of television schedules around the world, and which often combines the techniques of Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite into a modern, TV-friendly amalgamation. Though whether Maysles would approve of these narration-heavy productions is another matter altogether.

So it’s important that current and future exponents of the art of documentary remember the trailblazers like Albert Maysles, who had the vision to challenge and innovate, and could build audiences for non-fiction films that held a mirror to the complexities of the world around them. These films may even inspire a new generation to capture the truth and drama of the world they observe.

It’s only right that the final word comes from Maysles himself… enjoy!


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