Direct Cinema: Albert Maysles

Today, I was inspired all over again on making documentaries with simple equipment, but with head and heart fully engaged.  In a TEDx talk, cameraman Albert Maysles lets us see documentary through his lens of a lifetime’s experience – along the way making films about a young upcoming Senator J F Kennedy, Marlon Brando, the Beatles in America, salesmen in the dying trade of selling Bibles door-to-door…. you will likely have seen some of his footage at some time in your life.

“There’s so many things out in the world that we need that direct representation of, so that we can all share in, not getting someone else’s opinion of what’s going on, but to have the experience of being there.”

– Albert Maysles

What is Direct Cinema?

Made possible in the late 1950s/early 1960s by cameras light enough to carry on the shoulder, it uses the minimum of equipment and team to record what’s happening, without voiceovers or interviews and place the viewer as if ‘in the room’. It leapt into prominence with its use on the campaign trail with J F K in the film “Primary” (Albert shot some of the footage along with Richard Leacock and D A Pennebaker).

“If the camera person has the eye of a poet, and is very sensitive to what’s going on and knows how to shoot it, that result for us is even better than having been there for ourselves because the eye is so good at detecting and getting it just right.” 

– Albert Maysles

Does it matter?

Albert’s interest in filmmaking began as a professor in Psychology, and he brings that insight, interest and love of people into how he makes films.  In the TEDX talk, he expresses concern that almost all news broadcast is solely bad news.  At the time of speaking (2011) he wanted to record a documentary with Medea Benjamin (co-founder of the peace group Pink Code) “because she’s totally engaged in peace-making – not war-making, not killing, but saving lives.  And I know that if I had the opportunity to be with her in the process of peace-making, her experience would be the experience for everybody seeing that film, maybe 50 million people and get us in the mood for having confidence that peace is possible and that there are people who can do it” (timestamp: 13 mins in)

The more cynically minded media theorists will query all of this, especially that a documentary could change people’s engrained life and political attitudes – but Albert has actually claimed that the shared experience is powerful, and that it opens the mind to other possibilities than our own experience alone would not grant us.

It is also worth considering whether the presence of a camera affects the action happening at the time.  Do people over-react, knowing it’s there?

In the end, Albert did not get to record with Medea Benjamin, as he died of pancreatic cancer some 4 years after this TEDx talk was released.  Working to very near the end, there were 2 documentaries released in the year of his death: Iris (about fashion icon Iris Apfel) and one “In Transit” on a long train journey across America (which he proposed during the TEDx talk).  “Iris” was given to me by a friend because of its subject matter, as I had recently become interested in the imaginatively dressed Iris (“My mother worshipped at the altar of accessories”.)


It’s worth watching this 22 minute TedX talk because Albert:

  • shows how to be a cameraman trusted by others to tell their life stories
  • helps you think through how to go about telling a story (most internet writing is on the tech to use, the latest camera software etc)
  • has the experience of standing at the shoulder of history-makers (JFK, Fidel Castro, Beatles)
  • is humane
  • is a good anecdote teller
  • worked at such quality that 2 of his documentaries received Oscar nominations

“Get Closer”

This is Albert’s vision and can be seen in his style of shooting film, tightly framed and closeup:

“to humanise so that we could get that much closer to people… get closer, not as a diversion, but as an engagement” 

He began this early – remembering a wonderful experience as a young child when his father put on classical music and the young Albert just looked at his father’s face….   “the closeup of the face is such a wonderful way of carrying the experience across from the person in the film to the viewer”.


What is good documentary filming?

Albert Maysles says that footage can be perfect technically: good focus, framing and audio – but if it isn’t personally engaged and engaging, then it’s a failure.


Further Ref

Check out the work of the Maysles Foundation, “dedicated to the exhibition and production of documentary films that inspire dialogue and action” here.

Check out a similar audio engagement with the human voice (especially the unfamous), listening without forcing the conversation, to Studs Terkel in another post on ,& here.


Creative Takeaway

Should there be narrative voice in your story making?

How much can be told only by vision?

Where is the “camera” or “microphone” or “writing author” recording from, in your making?  Is the framing tight, closeup or faraway big picture?


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