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The Radical Act of Seeing
Nurturing the political spark of cinema going from the heart of Harlem, Maysles Documentary Centre has been making waves for nearly two decades – never shying away from the exploitative history of documentary making whilst continuously informing and entertaining its loyal audience, as Sam Gonçalves discovers
words + photography – sam gonçalves
location – glasgow, uk
New York City has no shortage of respected film institutions, but few of them are likely to be found in Harlem. Maysles Documentary Center [MDC], a non-profit that screens documentaries, is the exception to the rule. It hosts local film festivals and runs after-school programmes for young people in its 55 seat cinema, far removed from the mass institutions so often looked to as stalwarts of the industry.
Its origins go back to 2005, when the project was founded by renowned filmmaker Albert Maysles who, along with his brother David, directed genre-defining masterpieces like ‘Salesman’ , ‘Gimme Shelter’  and ‘Grey Gardens’ . The pair were known for pioneering what came to be called ‘Direct Cinema,’ a genre that attempted to capture the unfolding of real life drama – one without scripts, sets, actors or costumes.
This genre of film didn’t rely on artificial plotting, aiming instead to capture events as they developed naturally. MDC has carried the principles of the genre on, even after its founder’s death in 2015. But the current team is also aware of its limitations. Their Programmer, Emily Apter, explains that observational cinema [as it is also known] is an essential part of the organisation’s programme – but they also like to ‘explore experimental stuff.’
“There is an exploitative history in documentary filmmaking,” Apter explains, “so we have to ask, how can documentaries be made without the extractive aspect? That’s where experimentation comes in.”
On appearances alone, it may appear that the organisation is a memorial project. The lobby has, as well as the mandatory popcorn machine, trinkets and mementos from the history of documentaries alongside the history of the Maysles themselves – two areas of significant overlap. There are rare behind-the-scenes stills. A bobblehead of Edith Beale. A photo of Albert with Paul McCartney. But through its screening programme and educational approach, MDC is pushing the boundaries of the genre traditions that were, in part, established by their own founder.
“We try to create an environment where the films can be discussed,” Apter explains. “Success is not just when someone walks away having learned something, but when they feel a radical spark with political engagement.”
Feeling this ‘political spark’ has become increasingly commonplace within the walls of MDC. She continues: “It’s a small cinema, so you can feel the energy of a movie.” At one of the Annual Black Panther Party Film Festivals, hosted at Maysles, the electricity was palpable. Former Panthers attended en masse and would comment on the films with the authority of having lived through the events described.
The content programmed at the centre has gone beyond neutral and ‘objective’ observations of unknown worlds.
It has embraced the idea that even just observing ‘what’s going on’ is an act with political implications. In many ways, the team doesn't have a choice.
At a screening of the docufiction ‘Born in Flames’ , a film about protest and civil unrest, that spark was felt more than ever. The event, which was followed by a Q&A with Director Lizzie Borden, happened around the time a consortium of local groups had organised FTP [Free The People/ Fuck The Police], a series of disruptive protests against police brutality across the city. During the screening, specifically during a protest scene, cinema goers could hear the march happening right outside.
While cinema has often been associated with escapism, the dark room and comfy chairs at Maysles are not enough to enable anyone to ignore the world outside – and perhaps that’s pivotal. The small venue, located on Malcolm X Boulevard, is easy to miss. The surrounding police presence, however, is not. The community cinema now exists in a New York under the Mayoral leadership of former Police Captain Eric Adams, who favours and demands a forceful approach to policing. When challenged about increased surveillance in an interview, he unironically responded: “Big Brother is here to protect you.”
Ajay Ram, the Education Programme Assistant, characterises what it’s like to work around such rigid policing: “We keep asking, what is an ethical doc? Meanwhile, in this age of surveillance, we are living in the doc.” They passionately explain, “The camera has been used as a weapon as well as a tool to reclaim agency and identity.”
Education is, therefore, central to the work of transforming the camera from State weapon to community tool. Ram came to the centre via one of their training programmes and is now one of the individuals responsible for running it: “I found that when the students were editing there were moments of frustration but also a lot of excitement. It feels like they are finding something in themselves.”
Mass surveillance is a form of control meant to subdue and generate anxiety.
It communicates that everything is seen, logged and punished. The tools of nonfiction film can turn that threat back onto its perpetrators – it shows the subjects of their observations are also looking, keeping score. Ram reflects: “There’s a liberation that happens. They come in from one of the most highly policed areas in NYC and feel safe here. So much can happen when you feel safe and don’t have to worry.”
Seeing education as a political act builds a curious tension in the work of the organisation. On the one hand they are recognising the, often exploitative, nature of documentaries as we have come to know them. On the other hand, they are teaching ways of using it as the aforementioned liberatory tool.
“We’re not just saying ‘OK kids, film is inherently exploitative so you should probably not make anything,’” Apter jokes.
Where the organisation ultimately lands is somewhere in between where the power of film is recognised, in all its glory and damnation. Ram speaks on avoiding that romanticising of the art: “There’s a peddling of ‘movie magic’ that seems to exist just as a way to create more spirits for the industry to crush.” What they end up with is a passionate but pragmatic pathway for young filmmakers to look around their neighbourhood and tell their stories.
Whether the political implications of the work MDC is doing are in tune with its founder, is a difficult question to answer. While the centre has embraced experimentation beyond ‘Direct Cinema,’ it could be argued this would have been the logical journey of Albert’s output. After all, even setting up a cinema in Harlem is a choice with political intent coursing through it.
But one thing is certain: the day-to-day work of the cinema deals very little in hero-worshipping. Their mission is in democratising the craft, in putting equipment in hands that never held it. In telling stories that have not been heard. Apter explains: “Film has the ability to shed a light on what is visible and, not just invisible but, what is strategically invisibilised.”
Legendary educator Paulo Freire wrote: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
In many ways, Maysles Documentary Centre is only acting politically in the sense that any education predicated on understanding the world is, inherently, political. And in a world where you are always being watched, watching back is an act of revolution.
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