Maysles on Mission

Albert Maysles doesn't like Michael Moore's films, and Bowling for Columbine is no exception. Its accomplishments at the box office actually irk the New York, U.S.-based doc legend.
January 1, 2003

Albert Maysles doesn’t like Michael Moore’s films, and Bowling for Columbine is no exception. Its accomplishments at the box office actually irk the New York, U.S.-based doc legend. ‘I doubt that if you were a restaurant owner you would be thrilled that McDonald’s sold a billion hamburgers last year,’ Maysles laughs, shrugging off the notion that Bowling might boost audience acceptance for theater-bound docs.

It’s important to note here that Maysles, a pioneer of the Direct Cinema method, has not actually seen any of Moore’s films; the latter’s aggressive approach to filmmaking is enough to keep him away. ‘What he does doesn’t allow the most essential point in documentary, which is that the film be a reflection of reality and not a statement of his prejudices,’ says Maysles.

Method is important to Maysles – so long as it assists the capture of reality. This is one reason he also takes issue with Danish director Lars von Trier’s rules for producing Dogumentaries (see RealScreen, November/December 2002). ‘I found myself disagreeing with major points,’ sighs Maysles. ‘You have all this fear of manipulation. Fear, fear, fear, fear. It’s an attempt to get closer to the truth, but actually it’s a violation of it.’

He skims Dogumantarism’s nine points and stops at Rule no. 3, which gives a film’s subjects two minutes before the credit role to address the audience. ‘This is crazy,’ he says. ‘There shouldn’t be any need for them to correct what you’ve done. It’s an overprotective device. People make so many mistakes in life by being overprotective.’

Maysles reaches the next rule, about marking edits with six to 12 frames of black, and becomes frustrated. ‘If this sort of rule is going to make any sense, then you should include what you didn’t film, which of course is ridiculous,’ he says. ‘There’s so much misunderstanding about truth, especially in our culture,’ he continues. ‘When you recognize that you have an obligation to convey reality with authenticity, then you’re telling the truth. When you steer a course away from reality, then you’re departing from documentary truth.’

Maysles does agree with many of von Trier’s technical limitations that forbid artificial lighting, the addition of b-roll shots, and the use of external sound or hidden cameras. ‘There’s all kinds of ways of adding to [a scene], but the additions would be subtractions,’ he counsels.

Maysles’ biggest criticism of the Dogu rules, however, is what they leave out. ‘There is very little to inspire someone to want to make a documentary,’ he laments. ‘So, I’ve come up with what I call The Mission: As a documentarian, I happily place my fate and faith in reality. It’s my caretaker, the provider of subjects, themes and experiences, all endowed with the power of truth and the romance of discovery. The closer I adhere to reality, the more honest and authentic my tales. After all, knowledge of the real world is exactly what we need to better understand and therefore possibly to love one another. It’s my way of making the world a better place.’

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.