- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2007

Albert Maysles could have rested on his laurels decades ago. He and his late brother, David, pioneered documentary feature filmmaking with their American take on cinema verite, evident in such classic portraits as 1968’s “Salesman,” about four door-to-door Bible salesmen, and 1976’s “Grey Gardens,” which showed the squalid lives of two secluded relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy (and was recently turned into an unlikely musical).

But the 80-year-old filmmaker seems as busy as ever. He has founded the Maysles Institute, a philanthropic enterprise that teaches documentary filmmaking to 8- to 12-year-olds whose parents are in prison. He’s planning to open a movie theater, the Harlem Cinematheque, to screen films that speak to that community. And he seems to make a happy interviewee, genially and generously talking about his work.

“There’s so much more to do. I’m at a stage now where I know exactly how to use my camera,” he says by telephone from his New York office. “With that instrument in my hands, I can do so much good. Every time I go into a film, it’s an adventure, a serendipitous adventure, and it never ceases to amaze me.”

He even took time out from directing his own work to serve as one of the shooters and cinematographers on a friend’s film. Jasmine Dellal’s “Gypsy Caravan,” opening at Landmark’s E Street Cinema today, is a life-affirming chronicle of the North American tour of five bands of Roma musicians. Interspersed with live performances, “Gypsy” is filled with compelling characters who take filmmakers into their homes in four countries to talk about the centuries of persecution their people have faced and how they kept their spirits alive through music.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Mr. Maysles feels a kinship with the Gypsy artists he followed.

“I shot a film, it’s not finished yet, on klezmer music in Krakow, Poland,” he says. “It’s a very heartfelt kind of music that tears away at your heart. I find that both in the klezmer Jewish music and in the Gypsy music.”

“Gypsy Caravan,” of course, is not the first time Mr. Maysles has caught music on film. “Gimme Shelter,” which he directed with his brother and Charlotte Zwerin, captured the murder and mayhem at a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in northern California. He has also filmed classical artists Vladimir Horowitz and Mstislav Rostropovich and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.

Does he enjoy the music of all the disparate artists he’s filmed?

“Yes, especially once I get into it,” he responds. “In 1964, when I got a call from Granada Television asking me if I’d be interested in filming the Beatles, I didn’t know who they were.” His brother did, however, and they quickly agreed to do the film, which captured the Fab Four’s arrival in America.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono later moved into the Dakota, where Mr. Maysles was then living, and the two remained friends. Their sons went to school together, and the director is going to Montreal later this month to film a concert by Sean Lennon.

“My life is just one coincidence after another,” he laughs.

The increasing popularity of documentary film today doesn’t surprise Mr. Maysles. He says the shift was inevitable, “just the way it’s happened in literature, which has moved from fiction to nonfiction.”

Still, many of these newer films eschew the “direct cinema” that Mr. Maysles helped found, instead relying on voiceovers, interviews and, often, a distinct agenda.

“It’s somewhat unfortunate that so many films are dedicated to a point of view rather than allowing the viewer to exercise his or her own judgment,” he argues. “I think that’s a higher form.”

A documentary, he believes, should give the viewer “an insight into what’s going on in the world” rather than a two-hour editorial. And he prefers films about real people — like those Bible salesmen or the Bouvier Beales — to those featuring yet more Hollywood celebrities.

Mr. Maysles practices what he preaches. “I’m making a film of people I meet on trains in half a dozen different countries,” he reports. He will film the story each person’s train trip is leading toward. “It’s my way of bringing the whole world together in one film. The film isn’t attached to any political or social point of view.”

The project closest to his heart, though, is likely the autobiographical documentary he’s working on. It will chronicle his career and his working life now.

“Hardly a day goes by when somebody doesn’t call me up and say, ‘I’ve got an idea for a doc I’d like to talk about with you,’ ” he notes, saying he films these conversations. His memoir will also include previously unseen footage from his past films. And with such a long career, he’s even forgotten some of the notables he’s captured on celluloid.

“I just remembered a couple of hours ago that I did some filming of Eugene McCarthy,” he says. “Oh, I’ve got to include some of that in the film.”

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