Documentary and fashion icons bond in Iris

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      The opening of Iris at the DOXA festival and across North America has been a bittersweet time for producer Rebekah Maysles. Her father, nonfiction-film icon Albert Maysles, passed away from cancer only a month ago at the age of 88, after finishing the documentary about one of New York’s most colourful nonagenarians.

      Maysles, the director most famous for the 1970s’ Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens, in fact will have two posthumous releases: Iris and In Transit, a look at Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the busiest long-distance train route in America. Like Iris Apfel, the unstoppable style legend, interior designer, and textile maven he filmed for four years, Maysles loved to work well after the point when most people have retired.

      Iris is a really beautiful portrait film of someone independent and strong and determined,” says the younger Maysles, over the phone from New York. “It’s just amazing that these films were out there in the last year of his life, and they really represented him and the way he worked with people.”

      Maysles had an incredible ability to put people at ease, a talent obvious in Iris, for which he lensed his subject in her vintage-clothing- and curio-packed Park Avenue digs and Christmas-decoration-adorned Palm Beach pad. In fact, it’s almost impossible to believe he wasn’t friends with the magnificently bespectacled Apfel before the project, though they certainly formed a bond during filming.

      “They’re both New York characters, but didn’t know each other—it’s really funny and pretty amazing,” says Maysles. “He was very open about himself. I think sometimes people will ask something of someone that they aren’t willing to offer of themselves. But he was very generous and open and I think that comes off in the film. He was a sweet person who really liked to listen. And Iris and him really hit it off.”

      Although the director, who also did his own camera work, was able to capture the bead-bedecked Apfel’s riotous talent for accessorizing clothes—following her while she haggled at markets and vintage boutiques, and as she clicked through her museumworthy racks at home—it’s the documentary’s more personal moments that Rebekah Maysles savours most. It took the producer more than a year of gentle requests before Apfel handed over her 67-year-old wedding album, a gold mine of stylish shots from a bygone era (including some where Apfel’s wearing pink satin shoes that she still owns, of course).

      “I also love the stuff at home with Carl and her,” Maysles says, referring to Iris’s 100-year-old husband, with whom the busy clotheshorse always has time for a tender cuddle. “I love the way they are with each other, and I love her being on the phone all the time. I’m not that much into the fashion part of it.”

      More than anything, you can tell that Maysles is struck, watching the final film, by how much her father and Apfel had in common.

      “They both were at least double the age of anyone around them,” she says, explaining their work attracted a younger generation that they were always happy to help. “And both came from backgrounds of being raised by people who worked hard. They didn’t have a lot of money.

      “I also think that there was obviously some point in their lives where they realized what they wanted to do and what made them happy, and they just did it. Al didn’t go to film school. Iris didn’t go to textile school. So they were in awe of each other.”

      Iris screens at the Playhouse at 7 p.m. and the Vancity Theatre at 9 p.m. on Sunday (May 10) as part of the DOXA festival. The film's theatrical run in Vancouver begins May 29.