Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Documentary Comes to Harlem: The Maysles Cinema

Gentrification puts its best foot forward in a storefront just north of 125th Street in Harlem. The welcoming space houses a three-part business headed by documentary pioneer Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Salesman, Gimme Shelter.)

At Maysles Films, the film production arm, Maysles, his directing partner Bradley Kaplan, and their production team make documentaries as well as ads and other commissioned projects to help pay the bills. (Their latest doc, Muhammad and Larry, was part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series.) The educational branch of the operation, which includes after-school programs, a summer intensive, and a new class for adults, teaches people from the neighborhood—mostly middle school and high school students from Harlem and the Bronx—how to make their own films. And the Maysles Cinema screens a rich lineup of documentaries and a smattering of realistic narrative features, many of them tied directly to the life or history of the neighborhood.

The cinema's screenings illustrate what its mission statement describes as "the Maysles Brothers' principle that the lives of ordinary people not only deserve, but demand, our attention." Each is followed by a discussion between the audience and people who were somehow involved with the film, usually as filmmakers or subjects.

The business was started when Al Mayles and his wife, Gillian, moved from the Upper West Side to Harlem five years ago. "After seeing a screening at the old Pioneer theater, they thought they'd contribute to their new neighborhood. It was really my mother who came up with the idea of starting a small movie theater," says their son Philip, now the co-programmer of the cinema in collaboration with Jessica Green, the former editor of Stress magazine.

Two of the couple's three daughters also work there, both as volunteers. Facilities Manager Rebekah Maysles manages the space; Sara is new media director. The small staff also includes Development Director Jason Fox and Education Director Vee Bravo.

True to the collaborative spirit that animates the cinema, the staff take turns fielding interview requests. I talked to Philip Maysles and Bravo at the cinema on a recent Friday afternoon. Read the interview on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

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