At the RealScreen Summit last month, New York filmmaker Albert Maysles gave the endnote address. It was worth hanging in for, chock full of anecdotes on the art of capturing real moments, gleaned from decades of experience in up-close and intimate filmmaking. Albert, who along with his late brother David founded direct cinema, had a few things to say about what’s currently in vogue in factual – specifically on today’s version of reality, the blinkered point-of-view doc, and the seemingly endless fascination with the dark side of humanity. He’s not impressed. And judging by audience reaction, he struck a chord with the assembled non-fiction masses (or hit a nerve, depending on what you do).
Allow me to share a few of his thoughts. One call-to-arms that Maysles threw out to a receptive crowd, was: ‘As documentary filmmakers, we have a powerful mission. We have in our hands instruments to do this most honorable, most important thing – to fight the trend towards lousy people doing lousy things.’ Scattered applause begins. ‘There’s something better to be represented.’ Applause builds. ‘It’s time that we filmed good people. It’s time that we represented people performing acts of kindness.’ Nods all round.
From this I gathered that Maysles might not be a fan of the current competitive reality programming philosophy that believes you can never have too much of something, a dogma which lately bestowed The Littlest Groom upon the world and begat the neverending reality soap Forever Eden (in which the voting of folk off the island may go on as long as someone will watch).
Another who feels there is scope out there to be doing something better is American High filmmaker R.J. Cutler. Discussing his new reality series The American Candidate, in which an Idol-type elimination scenario plays out around potential presidential candidates, Cutler told RealScreen, ‘A lot of reality shows are completely mindless, but the genre is capable of exploring thoughtful issues.’
For Maysles, another area of concern is excessive point of view in filmmaking, since it tends to narrow the horizons: ‘What we need is not an affirmation of what people start out with, but a discovery the filmmaker can share. What he found by listening and watching with the eye of a poet behind the lens of the camera, recording precisely what’s taking place.’
Maysles recently captured such a discovery. He and filmmaker Antonio Ferrera filmed the Dalai Lama’s New York visit, and witnessed his early morning meditation. ‘You have to see it to feel it,’ says Maysles. ‘I think that’s true of any good documentary. You can talk about something, you can read about it, it can be fictionalized, but the thing that a documentary can do is bring you right there.’
Curiously, there’s an exponential amount of air time devoted to taking viewers places they would not want to be. Apparently not close enough for some, as NBC and AT&T Wireless let viewers vicariously compete in Fear Factor via their mobile phones last month.
It may seem contrary to focus on opinion that runs counter to prevailing programming trends in this, a market issue. But, others will tire of watching lousy people do lousy things too. So, perhaps it’s apropos to share Maysles’ plea to represent something better. It seems every programmer is looking for something breakthrough and exciting, yet many are mining reality trailings to do so. I know it’s simplistic, but, representing something better and exploring thoughtful issues may, after all, be the way to get ahead of the curve.
For the record, I’m tired of watching people eat bugs.
Anon, Mary Maddever, Editor