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Thursday night was a bit of an emotional roller coaster as friends, family members and collaborators packed the Tribeca Film Festival world premiere of Albert Maysles’ In Transit, which was completed just a week before the legendary documentary filmmaker died last month.
Producer Erika Dilday introduced the film, informing the audience that she screened its final cut for the ailing Maysles just five days before he passed away. “I didn’t think he’d be able to watch the whole film,” she explained at New York City’s Regal Battery Park Stadium. “But he said he wanted to see it. He perked up, and had me and his caregiver carry him in his chair, right in front of the screen. He watched it and said, ‘That’s good.'”
Albert and his brother David Maysles, who died in 1987, made over 20 films together, including documentary classics such as Grey Gardens, Salesman, Gimme Shelter and Meet Marlon Brando. Their work is often credited for ushering in a “direct cinema’ approach to filmmaking, which not only changed the way documentaries were made but also played a role in bringing a realistic aesthetic to American narrative cinema, as their work influenced everyone from Martin Scorsese to Terrence Malick.
In Transit — which follows train passengers along Amtrak’s Empire Builder route from Chicago to Seattle — had long been Maysles’ dream project. His widow, Gillian Walker, told The Hollywood Reporter that her husband’s desire to make the film dated all the way back to 1956. “He felt you could have these intimate relationships on a train,” she noted before the screening, “because it was time-limited and there was an intensity in the relationship between the passengers.”
Daughter Rebekah Maysles added, “He loved the idea that we could all come together in the same space on a train, and then return back to our lives, never seeing each other again.”
It was a red carpet marked by both tears and laughter. Dilday called the night “bittersweet” as those who knew Maysles were thrilled to see his dream of making a train documentary finally realized, but grieving the fact that he wasn’t there to celebrate its unveiling.
Maysles was known throughout the New York film world as a dedicated mentor of young filmmakers, largely through his nonprofit, The Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem. To help make In Transit, Maysles brought four young co-directors from the Center — Lynn True (who also edited the film), Ben Wu, Nelson Walker and David Usui — on board to do a bulk of the filming, which took place over three round trips along the Empire Builder route.
“Albert was an extraordinarily gifted camera person,” commented Walker during the postfilm Q&A, “but even more so, he was so gifted in the way he works with people and the way he would make people feel at home. The openness which you see in the film with the passengers on the train, we were all just channeling Albert in our filming.”
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Sterling K. Brown