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Jessica Green, Director of Harlem’s Maysles Cinema, on Film, Hip Hop, and Authenticity

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The Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of its cinema wing in the spring of 2018. Albert Maysles, the documentarian, and his wife, Gillian Walker, founded the center in 2005, and chose Harlem, in part, to “aid in the facilitation of what is taken for granted below 96th street”. Maysles, who died two years ago, was a boundary-breaking filmmaker at the vanguard of cinema verité. And the Center, a four-story building on Malcolm X and 127th, teaches and exhibits innovative and revelatory documentary filmmaking. 

Jessica Green is the director of the Maysles Cinema, the center’s cinema wing, and a boundary breaker herself. Green’s first venture into disruption was as the co-founder in 1995 and, eventually, editor-in-chief of the hip hop magazine Stress, which she had envisioned as evolving into a multimedia platform. 

Stress was an amazing project and the formative ground for all of us,” she says of the team behind the publication, remembered among other innovations for its intimate cover photographs of hip-hop artists. “It launched a lot of careers, people who went on to do well-respected things: become photographers, music video directors, writers, and documentarians. When we started it, we were young, the plan was always to spin it into multimedia properties and get into film and television.”

“It has always been about narratives, stories, and ideas, more than any particular media form,” she says. “In my mind, these transitions are natural.”

Hip hop and documentary share a lot of DNA, with a focus on authenticity

A “media maker,” as she describes herself, Jessica Green has always displayed wide-ranging but focused interests. After Stress folded, in 2002, she became the executive editor of BET.com. It was a prime seat from where she observed and played a part “in the beginnings of the kinds of cultural media behaviors and convergences we see so prominent today.”

“At BET, I learned a lot being part of this earlier convergence, right before YouTube launches, Facebook, etc. goes global. That was always about developing the convergence of internet and television. It’s all connected.”

Green says her transition from music journalism to film production was seamless, because of crucial similarities between hip hop and documentary filmmaking. “Hip-hop and documentary share a lot of DNA, with a focus on authenticity. That can be exploited in both cases. Documentary can be one of the most manipulative mediums because subconsciously we all come to it thinking it’s telling the truth and not a fictionalized story. It’s the same way as hip hop telling the story of the streets, but then you have studio gangsters who didn’t really.”

“In both ways, the parallels go in all directions. I think it’s a niche. It’s not the hugest thing in the world. People are really looking and hungry for the authentic and the real, especially now. Documentary has this long tradition of that, and there is so much opportunity for things to get real when the focus is on reality.”

To gain hands-on experience in film production, Green stepped down from her executive role at BET and took an assistant job on the post-production teams of Oscar-nominated director Noah Baumbach and independent filmmaker Ira Sachs, who won the 2005 grand jury prize at the Sundance film festival. “I wanted to be able to work across different media and platforms,” she says. “At that point, I wanted to develop experience in other fields and was willing to come in at a much lower level to do that. I learned a lot.”

Her new life in the film industry led to a chance encounter with Albert Maysles’ son, Philip, at a party. Green pitched him the idea for a new film series. The theme would be “New York City and gentrification with this idea of a wealthy family coming into Harlem.” The series, later released under the title Rent Control: New York Documented and Imagined, would “explore the complications of art production and transforming communities and all the dynamics involved.”

“The idea is to explore how New York is represented and delve into how this informs the reality of New York and vice versa,” Green told the younger Maysles. “Philip loved the idea and the two became collaborators, with Green eventually accepting an offer to join the Maysles Cinema. As its sole director, she curates all on- and offsite programming, including the institution’s tenth anniversary, in Spring 2018.

Growing up in New York City, Jessica Green had access to a range of cinema from a young age. Her love for film was “almost always there,” she says. Her early inspirations include “a combination of different venues that were around when I was growing up that had a big influence like the A Street Playhouse in the Village. Going to see repertory programming at twelve or thirteen. Exploring the different cinemas around the city. It was partially parental influence: I had one of those moms who said, ‘You have to watch this movie,’ and would make me watch a lot of movies with her. Being part of Gen X and coming of age in that moment of Star Wars, Greece and Saturday Night Fever, Close Encounters.”

Green “absorbed the power of popular cinema in a really powerful way at a prime age.” In addition to those iconic pop cultural phenomena, the “counterpoint in the independent movement” had a significant impact on her. She cites filmmakers Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, and Allison Anders.

Film criticism also played an important role in her early art education. “I remember Pauline Kael’s reviews in the New Yorker, especially the review of Dances with Wolves with a strong social critique.” This helped her “understand how popular film can be experienced and looked at critically. Soon after that, films like The Thin Blue Line and Hoop Dreams come on the scene, and there’s this experience of popular documentary that is really powerful.”

“Those early memories are always with me, around at Maysles and our mission here.”

Jessica Green sees the Maysles Cinema as a “place for democratic discourse and use of documentary as a tool to explore all these ideas that we are living life and are part of everyday life.” She pursues programming that further that vision. She curates films based on their quality, impact, and ability to provoke discourse. “The quality of the work is of utmost importance. Both the quality as it stands on its own and then how the work can be utilized in various ways a tool to engage audiences, discussion, and exchange of ideas. That also involves a live element, filmmakers, and subjects.”

Often the power of the documentary form rests in the subject, who can inspire viewers. “Documentary subjects are the real movie stars because they are these authentic characters, they’re not playing a part. Generally, who you see on screen is who you’re getting in person. There’s a reason: they have something, an ‘it’ factor not unlike a movie star. That can be great to bring the filmmaker and subject together and have audiences engage them.

“It becomes this rich exploration of storytelling and increases knowledge about documentary modes and language and grammar, something we’re invested in and what is important to us as far as carrying on Maysles’ legacy. He was all about educating people in documentary and getting them excited about it.”

Green says the Maysles Documentary Center helps inform and edifies the community on, and through, documentary filmmaking. “The Center has a cinema and a school for documentary filmmaking. People are learning how to make films here on site, everything is on our Vimeo channel and the website. They’re making amazing and fun work that is theirs.”

Then there’s the programming, which “is about increasing literacy of the form, of its language and grammar,” she explains. “Documentary is also an incredible tool for fostering the muscles of critical thinking. It’s about helping to be a small part of the bigger picture of how people develop the tools to understand their environment, the world, and their experiences in a way that is empowered, critical and engaged.”

Documentary filmmaking finds strength in activism and inspires communities to action, in the vein of global Third Cinema movements, Green says. “It depends on the context. Sometimes it action is fostered but sometimes it’s not, and it’s about reflection. Sometimes it’s about healing. It can be about a lot of different things. In terms of my own philosophy around the arts and programming, I tend to agree with the basic theory of the Brazilian Liberation Theologian Paulo Freire.”

Green says there are three stages of engagement: seeing, analyzing, and acting. “For me, personally, I feel more humbled about the role of media and art. [They comprise] the see and analyze parts. Direct action can be inspired out of this engagement, but it’s not always the place for that.”

“Mass media as it is, is generally much more about seeing and analyzing,” she explains. “Mass organizing and community organizing is more of the third part. It depends, and there’s wiggle room.”

Films have the power to enact real change and alter history

Rather than being didactic in its approach, Green says the Maysles Center promotes the indirect power of empathy. “[Albert] Maysles was big on interpersonal empathy. Walking in another man’s or another woman’s shoes through the vehicle of storytelling can provide a certain sensitivity that allows you to engage people who are different from you and have different experiences from you, more humanly and subjectively. That’s a very straightforward thing, but it’s very rich and very real. “

Sometimes, that is really what’s coming out of engaging with documentary subjects, Green explains. “Whether it’s music or film or literature, whatever the medium, artists are inspired by these movements as they happened and sing the songs and tell the tales and shine the spotlight. That’s also the role: to illuminate, and there’s so much of that in documentary.”

“At the same time, documentary films do have the power to enact real, direct change, and alter the course of historical events, as it’s well known to have done for Randall Dale Adams, the subject of Errol Morris’s pioneering 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line.”

“Documentaries can change someone’s legal situation and get someone out of prison,” It’s real example of the power of the spotlight, the mass media, and telling a story and the impact it can have. We are so defined as humans by storytelling. This is where we live.”

In efforts to build community, the center collaborates with local institutions. The second rendition of its Smile: It’s Your Closeup, for example, which focuses on documentaries centered on New York City, is co-curated with Edo Choi, from the Museum of the City of New York.

“We’re always looking to build on our partnerships,” Green says. “We are really stronger together, and we have to work together.” 

Arts organizations must be strategic about resources. “Everyone is surviving, and some thriving more than others, in a pretty hardcore real estate economy. There is so much reason to work together and share resources. Unless you’re incredibly resourced, it’s hard to go at it alone. Besides that, we are serving a community.”

“People in the community really want to see institutions working together. It makes people feel more like they’re part of the community if different organizations within that community are working together. Everybody wins. We are all part of these neighborhoods and the bottom line.”

Jessica Green fondly recalls a recent joint initiative with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a series of screenings of I Am Not Your Negro, the acclaimed documentary on James Baldwin, by Haitian director Raoul Peck“It was incredibly popular. I remember one organizer said it was like a Drake concert. One can only hope that something intellectual like that can be a Drake concert. I am a populist. I am about populist education and making things both accessible and sophisticated.”

She encourages young people to be deeply passionate, either as a creator or a curator. “First and foremost, you have to be super passionate and devoted and live and breathe this stuff. In whatever field, in programming or creating original content, you have to be super passionate” because a hit is not certain and relies a great deal on luck. “The money isn’t guaranteed,” she says.

Collaboration is essential. “Look to your peers… get your feet wet, and build your reputation. Don’t look vertically. Open your eyes horizontally: look at the people around you,” Green says, recalling her experience co-founding Stress, the magazine, in her twenties with like-minded hip hop lovers. “We didn’t get rich, but it gave me a foundation for my career.”

Melina Gills

Melina Gills is a culture and tech journalist who also works as a teacher and translator. She was born in Argentina and raised in Brooklyn. With degrees from Brown University and Rutgers University, she has focused her studies on cultural theory, film, modern fiction, and the intersections of politics and art. Her writing has appeared in Film Quarterly, Indiewire, Tribeca Film, Cineaste, and Storia.
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