the magazine of the columbia daily spectator
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“Excuse me, can I interest you in some information on upcoming screenings at the Maysles Cinema?”
This phrase tumbles out almost mechanically after hours spent repeating it, my handful of fliers dutifully thrust forward into a stream of oncoming pedestrians. As the Cinema’s new graphic design intern, I initially imagined myself more on the crafting than the distribution side of the promotional process—but, after only a short time behind the scenes, I know I’m exactly where I want to be: on the steps of a local Harlem church, making sure everyone I can possibly reach knows about the cutting-edge sociopolitical discourse going on only blocks away at 127th and Lenox. Still, as might be expected, these attempted handouts are met mostly with brush-offs, a few acceptances and, occasionally, a “Maysles? Wait, like, that Maysles?”
Yes, that Maysles—Albert, to be exact—one half of the sibling documentarian duo famous for films like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. It was that very legacy of filmic expertise—along with the creative and vocational drive of his children, Philip, Rebekah, and Sara—that inspired the family to open the Maysles Institute and its corresponding nonprofit Cinema in 2005, as a space which “exhibits independently curated films to inspire dialogue and action, and advances community-produced films through education programs,” according to their mission statement. As Albert explained to me, “I make documentaries, so it was only natural that the theater show documentaries—with the unique feature of having the director, or someone else deeply involved in the film itself, do a Q&A.”
This is one of the most remarkable things about the Cinema: that almost every screening is followed by some kind of talk-back with the film’s maker, often, even subject. Moreover, these discussions take place in a small, fifty-seat theater—an intimacy of scale that Jessica Green, Cinema Director since 2008, believes enhances the discourse: “There’s something to be said for being in a smaller space, feeling comfortable and feeling safe, versus a five-hundred seat theater, where the director is way down there at the bottom and you feel like you’re performing if you raise a question.” At the Maysles Cinema, any filmmaker or panelist is quite literally on equal footing with his or her audience, encouraging a more fruitful back-and-forth.
“We believe that film should be open for people to see and talk about,” explains Facilities Director Rebekah Maysles. “We believe everyone should have access”—a sentiment reflected in the Cinema’s every aspect, from its entry fee as a suggested $10 donation, to the varied topics of the films screened—including, just in the past month, a series on post-9/11 New York, the Black Panther Film Festival, and now the upcoming series “Congo in Harlem,” a week-long celebration of Congolese filmmakers.
“What we try to do here, day in and day out, is create space for people of different backgrounds to have this discourse and share in these films,” Green explains. “We think people need to come together across these different lines to really develop their community.”
This is a line that ought to hit home with constituents of Columbia—an institution that, though geographically a stone’s throw from the Cinema’s Harlem address, often feels worlds away. “At least in my somewhat brief experience at Columbia, I felt that students often didn’t get out into the surrounding area,” recalls Sara Maysles, an alumna who now serves as the Cinema’s New Media Director. “I don’t want to sound scolding—I know there are so many opportunities at Columbia, and it’s easy to get lost in that—but there are also lots of opportunities just a 1-2 train ride away.”
In the wake of Columbia’s Manhattanville Expansion project, this chance to explore adjacent neighborhoods couldn’t be more significant. To that end, the Cinema’s locally curated documentaries can play a crucial role in making the plights of our neighbors real and present. As Albert puts it, “Photography and cinematography can do this amazing thing of humanizing—of giving the viewer an engaging experience with the experience of the people on the screen.”
Exhibit A: during the Q&A after a screening of Justice on Trial, Kouross Esmaeli’s 2009 documentary about the Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, now in his 27th year on death row, the Cinema produced Mumia himself, by telephone. There, patrons could hear this man—whose innocence they had just seen all but demonstrated on screen—answer their questions about his still-pending case, his voice vibrating through each of the bodies crammed between the Cinema walls.
“Sometimes, we’ll have a turn-out of like ten, and it’ll be the best conversation you ever had,” says Rebekah. “The only problem with having a small number of people is you end up being like, ‘Ugh, I wish there had been more people there to experience that!’”
It’s a feeling I’ve had many times since joining the Cinema staff—that desire to shout the screening times from rooftops, hire a skywriter—anything to get people to 127th & Lenox to witness the feats these artists and organizers continue to accomplish. Because if you measure success like the folks at the Cinema, in pots stirred and discourses opened, then you know that involving more people can only enrich the experience.
“So, what do you think?” I end my curbside spiel, smiling expectantly at some poor soul in laundry day clothes whom I’m clearly blocking only steps from his apartment door. “Yeah, okay, why not,” he says at last. Then, chuckling: “Your enthusiasm is infectious.” Honestly, I can only hope so.
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