The Maysles Maze: Documentarian's Daughter Searches for Dad

She weaves the interviews together with footage of herself going to places in her father’s past, as well as with audio interviews of David Maysles by journalist Bob Sitton. Celia cries several times in the film, sometimes letting out a sob while hearing a story about her dad, and while talking to her own therapist. “It’s odd for me to think that [no one] other than you … was left sad by David Maysles,” Mr. Sitton tells her, after explaining what a generous bon vivant her father was.

Getting to look at any material that would show her living and breathing father on film became Celia’s Holy Grail.

“I had interviewed all these people and I still felt like I didn’t know him,” she said. “I just wanted to see him.”

Eventually Celia stumbled upon a library kept by a friend of her father’s that included a trove of film footage of David. The rough footage appears toward the end of Wild Blue Yonder; we see a sleepy David, asking his unseen interviewer (artist Larry Rivers) questions that might as well be directed toward his own adult daughter. “Why do you want to know the answers?” he asks. “I’m not sure I want to know. I like the fantasy of what it might be.”

The footage provided her with closure. “I got my pain out through making the film. I think I really got to know him,” she said. “I also got to know myself.”

Particularly, Celia got to know herself as a filmmaker. She has been embraced by a documentary filmmaking community that has many connections to her father. When she went to interview Henry Corra, who worked with her father for seven years, he instead became her closest filmmaking confidante. Xan Parker, who had once been Celia’s boss when she was an intern at Maysles Films, became another ally and producer on her film.

Celia could not be immune to some of the war stories she heard, such as the debacle caused when Bruce Sinofsky and his filmmaking partner, Joe Berlinger, ended their landmark 1992 film, Brother’s Keeper, with a credit acknowledging David Maysles. (Both Mr. Berlinger and Mr. Sinofsky had gotten their start in documentaries with Maysles Films.) According to Mr. Sinofsky, Albert was upset about the credit, and asked them to take David’s name off the film. “He said, ‘It’s clear you’re trying to ride the Maysles coattails,’” Mr. Sinofsky said. “I told him I could have named it after Mussolini if I wanted to.”

“Albert is not a nice man,” Mr. Sinofsky said. “And he’s fearful that if someone else gets his or her name in a book, it’s erasing his name.”

Celia said the difficulties she encountered with her uncle were “a blessing in disguise. I am really grateful to him. I owe him everything. If he had just been like, ‘Here, take this,’ I would have known this much of my dad.” But, because he made things difficult for her, she said, “I had to reevaluate their daily lives. If my dad’s brother had been doing this to me, how had he been with him?”

When the film was slated for the Amsterdam screening last November, said the festival’s director, Ally Derks, “I got a phone call from Maysles’ office asking why I screened the film, because they were worried about the film, and the way Maysles was portrayed in it. But they never asked not to show the film.”

Celia says she sees room for healing the rift with her uncle. “Believe it or not, I have hope,” she said. “In some way, I guess I am talking to Al in the film. I want him to see me as a human being. I put myself out there, hoping that he would relate to me a little bit and have some compassion toward me. I hope he responds in a positive way.”

Albert’s only public reaction to Wild Blue Yonder can be found in the film itself, and in two brief online interviews. In one of them, appearing on the Web site the Reeler, he said, ”Unnecessarily, I come off badly. . . . Actually, I think the film is fairly well made.” He denied having threatened to block the film. “I guess I could have, but no,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt her. She’s my niece! I’d love to help her out.”

And Albert Maysles issued the following statement to The Observer: “I’m happy for Celia that she has made a film about her father, who was my partner and best friend, as well as my brother. I had offered to work with her on it and was sorry that she decided not to do so, and I wish her all the best. As it happens, I am now working on my own autobiography—Handheld and From the Heart—with my son, Philip, which we expect to finish next year. “

Can we ever know the whole story? That’s a question that’s posed to every documentary filmmaker. “There are three sides to every story—my side, your side and the truth,” Judy Maysles told me.

And, for 70
minutes, Celia gets to tell her side.

 

“I want my dad to be alive again amongst the film community,” Celia told me at the Maysles Alumni holiday party. (Albert continues to have his own holiday gathering, while this offshoot started four years ago.) And to that end, she dug into a plain canvas bag that’d been strapped to her shoulder all night and handed Mr. Sinofsky a DVD of the film.

“I’ll watch it tomorrow,” he said.

Reached by phone at his home in Montclair the next day, Mr. Sinofsky sounded wistful. “I liked it quite a bit,” he said. “It was actually shocking to see David so alive. He was like a second dad to me.”

He recalled that after David died, Judy had asked him to be a “male influence” for Celia and her brother John. So he took her to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s roller-skating Broadway show, Starlight Express and, afterwards, to a meal at Bobbie Rubino’s Place for Ribs. Celia wore what looked like “a pretty Christening dress,” Mr. Sinofsky remembered.

“I wish I could have done more,” he said.