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[whitespace] Albert Maysles
Point of View: Filmmaker Albert Maysles overcame countless rejections to become a living legend among documentarians.

Stranger Than Fiction

In the odd, uphill battle for mainstream success, documentary filmmakers see themselves as the cinematic warriors of truth and reality

By David Templeton

ALBERT MAYSLES shakes his spectacularly shaggy, white-topped head, forces out a gust of half-bemused laughter and leans in close to his interviewer. All the while, his sparklingly clear eyes make direct and inescapable contact. He's been talking about Salesman, a hard-hitting, near-legendary documentary about door-to-door Bible peddlers that was filmed in the mid-'60s when Maysles, now 72, was 39 years old.

Sitting "backstage" between films at the Double Take Film Festival, an annual North Carolina event devoted to documentary films, Maysles has just been informed that the film in question was once seen, and enjoyed, on the long-lived and much-lauded PBS documentary showcase called POV.

"So you saw it on POV, did you?" says the New York-based Maysles, his lips curling into a knowing smile. "Well, it took only 25 years to get it there."

He then tells of his countless efforts to pursuade that venerable program--for years one of the very few such venues that existed for documentary films--that Salesman was deserving of the public's attention.

"Whenever I'd hear there was a new program director, I'd try again," Maysles recalls. "On one occasion, I called a guy up and he says, 'Oh, I've heard of your films. I'd love to see it.' So the guy comes over to the studio, and halfway through Salesman, when I come in to change the reel I see that he's been crying. He's been sobbing.

"And I think to myself, 'Oh my, God! At long last I'm gonna get this film shown.' But the guy says, 'Don't bother changing the reel. I don't need to see any more. This is too depressing. My father was a door-to-door salesman.' So he passed," Maysles says with a sigh. "Such is the life of a documentary maker."

IT WOULD SEEM, from listening to Maysles' woeful tales, that such a life--specifically that of an independent documentary maker--is one of extraordinary uncertainty, a rough existence alternating mainly between days of rejection, days of frustration and days of disappointment.

What sets it apart from the life of other independent filmmakers--people like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, dedicated to the making of fictional films--is that the Tarantinos and the Smiths hold at least a slim chance of attaining financial success. There are no independent documentarians in the "rich filmmakers" club, because documentaries, at this point in time, almost never make it to the mainstream. This, in spite of the fact that the best films to come out of the independent scene of late are the documentaries, many of them brilliant and dazzling works of art that touch the emotions and jolt the senses--yet still make no money.

"Oh, it's a crazy life," Maysles affirms, with an amiable chuckle. "But it's also a very rich life, a life very much worth living--if you happen to have what it takes."

This notion of documentary as a noble-yet-underappreciated art form is, understandably, a very hot topic at the Double Take Film Festival, one of the few film fests in the country that is devoted entirely to documentary films.

Held annually in the town of Durham--the home of Liggett & Myers and Lucky Strike, whose towering smokestacks rise above the downtown cityscape--this relatively new festival is co-sponsored by Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies and is quickly gaining a reputation as a kind of documentary-makers' Sundance.

It's an umpretentious, somewhat quirky event, a comfy combination of polished showmanship and aw-shucks affability, the kind of festival at which the town's beaming mayor shares the stage, on opening night, with world-class filmmakers.

"Documentary is important," Maysles explains to the cheering crowd, "because it reminds us that there is real life out there somewhere." Indeed.

Under the direction of Nancy Buirski, Double Take boasts some serious Hollywood-style star power on its impressive board of directors, including Jonathan Demme, Ken Burns, Barbara Kopple, John Sayles, Lee Grant, Martin Sheen and even Martin Scorcese. Like camera-toting pilgrims arriving in some documentary mecca, grateful aficionados swarm each April to Durham's quaint downtown (along with occasional wafts of menthol from the surrounding tobacco factories).

The hallways and courtyards of the 100-year-old Carolina Theater ring and echo with varying volumes of shop talk, chatter and babble, as this mass of co-mingling doc-makers, most of them a bit giddy with the rush of so much mutual appreciation, openly enjoy a rare opportunity to compare battle scars, share success stories--and watch hours and hours of documentaries.

This year, these films include offerings from around the world, by relatively new filmmakers such as Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons, The Living Museum) and Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, last year's Audience Appreciation winner), as well as by legends like D.A. Pennebaker, Errol Morris, Lee Grant and Albert Maysles. An evening of short subjects featured two South Bay filmmakers: Tony Seghal, with No Laughing Matter, his giddy exploration of India's phenomenally popular "laughing clubs," and Joanne Shen, whose King of Kowloon--about Hong Kong's famous underground graffiti artists--inspired lively discussion from an appreciative late-night crowd.

BEYOND DURHAM, however, the art of documentary is still fighting for an audience. As Maysles' POV story illustrates, the cinematic traits that are counted as strong points in fictional films--namely, realism and strong emotion--are often the very traits that are counted as liabilities when a documentary is being called unfit for mass consumption.

It's nothing new. Over the course of his long professional career, Maysles--who's rubbed shoulders and shouldered cameras with the industry's most inventive and pioneering practitioners--has made dozens of documentaries, including several that are certified classics, such as Gimme Shelter, the notorious 1969 Rolling Stones concert film that climaxed with the onscreen murder of a concert-goer at Altamont Speedway.

But in spite of his status as a living legend, Maysles has fought for every penny (and every shred of critical respect) that he has earned. Not that he's earned many of those pennies; he long ago took to making commercials on the side, just to stay alive. It's a tactic most of his peers resort to at one time or another.

"Documentary," asserts Marina Goldovskaya, director of UCLA's documentary film department, "is the shortest road to poverty." Also a documentarian, originally in her homeland of Russia, Goldovskaya (The House on Arbat Street) often warns her students about the pitfalls that await the committed documentarian. She can recite the life stories of countless documentarians, along with all the grisly details.

"Robert Flaherty," Goldovskaya illustrates, "had many successes, but even more failures. He made wonderful films that no one ever saw." Flaherty was the camera-toting adventurer whose groundbreaking 1912 documentary Nanook of the North is generally believed to be the greatest documentary ever made. But in the end, Goldovskaya says, Flaherty died of a broken heart.

Even so, Goldovskaya is as dedicated to documentary as was Flaherty. "I would never, never, never change my orientation," she insists. "Never. Yes, I could make fiction films instead. I never wanted to, and I still don't."

The logical question, of course, is Why make a documentary?

First of all, it's nearly impossible to find anyone willing to underwrite an independent documentary; it took Leon Gast 23 years to raise the money he needed to complete the Mohammed Ali/George Foreman documentary When We Were Kings, which went on to win an Academy Award and a miraculous distribution deal that placed it in mainstream theaters throughout the country.

Which points to another problem. It's almost unheard of for any multiplex theater to exhibit a documentary film; such box-office successes as Kings and Michael Moore's Roger & Me are the rarest of exceptions (another being the grueling chronicle Everest--shown only in giant-screened Imax theaters like the one at the Tech Museum in San Jose--which currently boasts a domestic box-office take of $68 million and counting).

Some documentarians are lucky enough to see their work distributed to America's smaller "art house" theaters--where the word "blockbuster" is given to any film bringing in more than a million dollars or two in earnings--yet most documentaries never get beyond a few screenings at film festivals, if that.

Many reality-based filmmakers have had to turn to television, a proud sponsor of documentary films in the early days of the medium. Even though premium stations like HBO and Showtime--along with cable channels such as Lifetime, A&E, the Learning Channel and, of course, PBS--have been actively producing and promoting some first-rate documentaries, they've been simultaneously polluting their own waters with such dreck as Showtime's documentary-esque Pimps Up--Hos Down and Cab Driver Confessions. Locally, KTEH (Ch. 54) is the primary outlet for documentaries. This week, the station will air Time Frenzy, a study of Silicon Valley life by Bob Gliner (see story).

There's little room at all left for the highly personal, occasionally disturbing subject matter that has inspired some of documentary's greatest masterpieces.

"It's brutal," declares Dean Wetherell, a young documentarian from New York. He and his filmmaking partner, Lisa Gossels, have recently begun the exhausting, time-consuming film festival circuits, accompanying their marvelous film The Children of Chabannes (a popular success at Double Take). "Making a documentary film is like running the Ironman triathlon blindfolded with no water stations along the way. You're running a race with absolutely no support. And it might be getting worse."

[line]

Quixotic Eye: Local filmmaker Joanne Shen turns her camera on life's eccentrics

Laugh Lines: Tony Sehgal captures a South Bay boy's odyssey in 'Through the Heart of a Lion'

[line]

IT'S ALREADY GOTTEN so bad, in fact, that many longtime documentarians are quitting the field altogether. Laurel Chiten caused a small sensation with her film The Jew in the Lotus, the tale of a troubled Jewish man whose faith is rekindled after meeting the Dalai Lama. In spite of her critical kudos, Chiten would have starved waiting for any financial rewards. Realizing that good reviews can't pay for food and rent, she quit making documentaries. Ruth Ozeki, whose work includes the award-winning Halving the Bones, has thrown in the nonfiction towel as well.

"I finally realized that the life of the documentarian was not a very sustainable one," Ozeki says. After going $30,000 in credit-card debt to make Bones, and failing to land a distributor (or make that all-important sale to POV), she's made a much bigger (and more lucrative) splash as a bestselling novelist.

My Year of Meats is her first novel; ironically, it's a comic satire about a beleaguered crew of ... documentarians, traipsing across the American Midwest in search of the next great shot. Ozeki, having finally left the documentarian's hard-scrabble life behind--and having finally pulled herself out of debt--insists she's never looked back.

Adding further insult to injury: in recent months, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences--the people who give out the Oscars--has dealt an additional blow to documentary by eliminating the distinctions of "documentary short subject" and "feature-length documentary" from its list of categories; in the past, one Academy Award was given in each category. Starting in the year 2000, a single award will be presented for Best Documentary, effectively cutting in half the number of documentarians that will get a shot at standing in the Oscars' career-boosting spotlight.

"Documentary is kind of the poor step-child of the film world," agrees Ed Carter, chief archivist at the Academy's 5-year-old documentary film archive, in Los Angeles. "It's a shame that so many of the great documentaries are never even seen anymore."

And yet, according to Goldovskaya, despite so many obtacles, student interest in documentary is at an all-time high, with record numbers of would-be filmmakers entering her classes with dreams of becoming the next Albert Maysles, Robert Flaherty or Marina Goldovskaya--in spite of her dire warnings about broken hearts and that "short road to poverty."

So again, the question is why. Why flirt with poverty when there's better money, and more consistent societal respect, to be gained from, say, flipping burgers at McDonald's?

One answer lies in the fact that, for some filmmakers, critical success is enough. And many critics, including Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin, are fierce champions of documentary. "Documentary is an extremely creative art form," explains international film critic David Thomson, "and it makes for some very provocative, stimulating, entertaining films.

"Not to say that documentary is purer or nobler than fiction," he adds. "There are plenty of dull, bad, pretentious and prejudiced documentaries, just as there are plenty of bad feature films. But it seems to me that documentary is a form that offers endless artistic choices to a filmmaker. It's a very rich medium."

'IN MY CASE," says D.A. Pennebaker, "asking why is like asking the guy who carves the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin why he does it. There may be more expansive ways of dealing with his art, but it's all he knows how to do. Documentary," he shrugs," is all I know how to do."

At 74, Pennebaker, another living legend among documentarians, is still going strong. In fact, close-cropped, broad-shouldered and powerfully proportioned, Pennebaker looks like someone you wouldn't want to have to fight. And Pennebaker is a fighter, having carved out an impressive career in spite of the requisite setbacks.

His films include 1967's Bob Dylan concert film Don't Look Back and 1969's Monterey Pop, as well as the groundbreaking 1960 political romp Primary, and 1993's Oscar-nominated Clinton campaign chronicle The War Room, co-directed by his wife, Chris Hegedus.

Pennebaker was a founding member of the pioneering Filmmakers collective, which formed in the early '60s. An energetic gang of idealistic young artists--that included Albert and David Maysles--the collective is widely credited with adopting and Americanizing the French notion of cinema verité, with its live action, hand-held cameras and mandate of objective observation.

During one of Double Takes' panel discussions, Pennebaker gently prods the crowd's film-festival optimism when he reminds them, "Documentary is a hazardous career. And my advice to those of you who are just starting out is 'Go back. Stop, before it's too late.'

"You won't, though," he allows. "You'll do what you have to do. And if you can do it, and bring it off--and make a career for yourself--you'll find it's an amazing way to live your life." This warning--which comes across as both a threat and an invitation--is revealing as it demonstrates a bit of the weird, schizophrenic, love-hate, manic-depressive mindset that seems to operate at the heart of the modern documentary movement.

Lee Grant
Reel Life: Lee Grant (right) considers documentaries a 'privileged place to be.'

AND FOR MOST of the filmmakers at the Double Take weekend, documentary is a movement. To those in the rowdy trenches of true-life filmmaking, it's a Holy Grail-like quest for cinematic purity and truth; an in-the-face examination of the real world, warts included; a thrilling, terrifying epic adventure in which knights with cameras try valiantly to capture wonderfully magical moments that are, for the most part, entirely outside their control.

"Making a documentary is like escaping from the coal mines and finding yourself skiing out on the slopes" is the way actress/director Lee Grant describes it. "With documentary, you're free, you're making a journey, you're going someplace you've never been before."

A two-time Oscar winner (in 1975, for Best Actress in Shampoo, and then in 1986, and as the director of the Best Feature-Length Documentary, Down and Out in America), Grant has made numerous nonfiction films over the last two decades, films that have taken her into prisons and hospitals, over picket lines, inside homeless encampments and violent courtrooms and onto some very mean streets.

"You get to kick open doors that are risky, and you ask people questions and sit there amazed as they let you into their houses and lives and tell you their most personal stories. It's a very privileged place to be."

Slawomir Grumberg, a Polish-born cinematographer and award-winnng documentarian, sees his filmic vocation as nothing less than a holy war; it's the battle of truth vs. illusion.

"I don't like fictional films," Grumberg softly admits, sipping a coffee after a screening of his own film, School Prayer: A Community at War. "I believe that real life is much more interesting."

'IN SPITE OF everything, this is probably the best time for documentaries in a long, long while," insists Nancy Buirski, Double Take's tireless director. "In the last 10 years, there's been a kind of documentary renaissance, mainly because of the cable stations requiring so much documetary 'product.' The positive result for a festival like this is that there's a huge audience watching TV and getting its appetite whetted for documentaries. So I think the anti-documentary stigma will be declining more and more.

"And as more and more documentaries are made for television, the role of a festival such as ours will be to act as a watchdog for the industry, to help challenge and encourage and maintain the independent voice in documentary. It's important that that voice not be lost."

On the last day of the festival, the sky over Durham is overcast and stormy, and the overall temperament of the revelers has down-shifted into a softer, somewhat melancholic mood. Out in the courtyard, as authentic North Carolina barbecue is served, a distinctively quirky awards presentation is taking place, with Buirski standing on a chair to shout out the names of the festival winners, while the crowd encircles her, cheering for each recipient. Albert Maysles, stopping to chat with friends before trotting back to New York--and the harsh realities of the real world--offers a final piece of wisdom.

"This is what Spinoza said," he smiles. " 'All things excellent are difficult and rare.' Well, that's documentary. Difficult and rare.

"Maybe someday the rest of the world will see it our way."

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From the August 26-September 1, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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