HARLEM — If he wasn't at the White House Monday receiving the prestigious National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama, Albert Maysles would have likely been at Maysles Documentary Center on Lenox Avenue and 127th Street.
Regarded as having helped create the modern American documentary genre, along with his late brother, David, Maysles launched the center eight years ago. It hosts screenings and teaches adults and young people in Harlem about using filmmaking to spark conversation and explore truth.
"His desk is behind the screen," Cinema Director Jessica Green said about Maysles' office on the other side of the wall of the nonprofit's small theater. "He comes in every day."
Roughly 20 people gathered to remotely watch the 87-year-old filmmaker accept his award.
Maysles, who with his brother directed the groundbreaking documentaries "Salesman," which follows Bible salesmen, "Gimme Shelter," the 1967 documentary about the Rolling Stones, which showed a murder that occurred at one of their concerts, and "Grey Gardens," pioneered "direct cinema," a type of non-fiction film-making based on the French cinema verite where there is no authoritative narrator and events are filmed as they occur.
The brothers developed the technique during the early 1960s using advances in technology such as the handheld camera.
"The moments you help create — moments of understanding or awe or joy or sorrow — they add texture to our lives. They are not incidental to the American experience; they are central to it—they are essential to it, " Obama said to the 2013 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal recipients during the East Room ceremony.
Winners included dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, singer and songwriter Linda Ronstadt, whom Obama admitted having a boyhood crush on, film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Stanley Nelson, who directed documentaries on the black press and the Freedom Riders and runs the Harlem-based nonprofit Firelight Media, which works to produce the next generation of documentarians, also won.
Other New York City-based medal recipients include architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams and composer John Kander.
The crowd in Harlem burst into applause when Maysles' name was called and Obama presented him with the medal for "rethinking and remaking documentary film in America."
Sasha Alexander, 28, a Maysles Documentary Center educator who is leading a six-week intensive film workshop for teens, was excited.
"People are often not recognized until they are not here," said Alexander as workshop participants planned and edited films about everything from fatherhood to examining race and beauty through the experiences of two black models.
Students of the center have won prizes for their work at the Tribeca Film Festival and recently worked with Harlem Hospital and the Manhattan District Attorney's office to produce a piece about gun violence.
"He founded this center in Harlem to promote filmmaking for people that don't have the same experience," said Alexander. "And you can still usually find him upstairs editing."
Maysles also teaches master classes at the center, which touches more than 5,000 people through screenings and classes, said the center's education director Christine Peng.
"It really is a school and a theater all at once," Peng said.
Tatiyana Jenkins, 18, a sophomore at Lawrence University and a graduate of the intensive summer workshop, returned this summer to serve as an assistant teacher.
Jenkins grew up just blocks from the center but had no idea who Maysles was or what the center did until her dad encouraged her to check it out one summer.
Not only did the program inspire Jenkins to study film, it also broke her out of her shell.
"I was a shy, shy kid but they encouraged me to speak about my film and now I can stand in front of an audience and speak about my work," Jenkins said. "It's good to see people appreciate him the way we do."
B.J. Johnson, the curator of the Black Panther Film Festival, said he was most impressed with Maysles' effort to diversify the people making documentaries.
"We need more people of color behind the scenes," said Johnson who will launch the sixth-annual festival at Maysles Documentary Center in September. "(Maysles) is always at our festivals. He sits right in the front, too."
Green said Maysles, who was excited and humbled to receive the award, wouldn't have it any other way.
"This is a space to use documentary as a tool to explore social history," said Green. "It's where there can be a discourse about the changes this community is going through."
Now that he's received his honor, Maysles' staff expects business will continue as normal.
"He'll be back in his office on Wednesday," said Green.