The following adaptable classroom activities suggest various approaches for introducing and/or extending learning on the documentary filmmaking of Albert Maysles, who was interviewed on the December 6, 2002 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS broadcast. (Note: A free transcript of this interview is available on the NOW Web site. Teachers may also tape the broadcast off-air and use it in the classroom for one year. Alternatively, programs are available for purchase from ShopPBS (http://shop.pbs.org).)
1. How Successfully Does Direct Cinema Capture Real Life?
Albert Maysles, who began his career as a documentary filmmaker working with his late brother David, is honored for his groundbreaking use of "direct cinema," known as "cinema verité" in France. This type of documentary filmmaking attempts to be as unobtrusive to the subjects as possible. The hand-held camera used is much smaller than traditional film cameras, and the technique involves setting up the camera and letting it roll as the subjects live their lives. Show students the NOW interview with Maysles, including the short film clip BEFORE I LEAVE, and then view one of the Maysles brothers' longer films, such as SALESMAN or GREY GARDENS. Discuss how Maysles has followed through on his own dictum: "More attention should be paid to ordinary people." Have them write an essay response to the film, answering the question: How has Maysles gotten close to his subjects and to their "truth," as he says, by "always filming heart to heart"? (An alternative topic could be to have students disagree with that statement.) Ask students to use descriptions of specific shots and quotes from the film to support their answer. These resources may be helpful in connection with this activity:
Changing an Art Form
The NOW site discusses how the Maysles brothers changed filmmaking and details controversies surrounding their work.
Maysles Films, Inc.
This site provides the latest news on the film company and its activities, including screenings and events, a history of the company, a film library, and some commercial shorts.
The Legacy of Albert Maysles
The MovieMaker site provides an essay and interview about Maysles and his films.
2. What Role Does Editing Play in Filmmaking?
In the introduction to his book, FILM: A MONTAGE OF THEORIES, film scholar Richard Dyer MacCann states that editing is one of the three elements of film. The direct cinema technique of Albert Maysles chooses to de-emphasize the use of editing. He explains in the NOW interview, "I'm always looking for events that are taking place. Sequences--experiences--that I can capture and pass on to the viewer." Since editing is so important to film art and is usually quite invisible, students may have very little appreciation for what it is, how it works, and how they are manipulated by it. Ask students to use available resources in their school library (encyclopedias of film, books about filmmaking, etc.) or online searches to find out more about film editing and how it works. The Annenberg/CPB site provides a glossary and explanation of editing terms that may be helpful. Have students synthesize their research in an essay or report that answers the following questions:
- What are the steps taken in the process of film editing?
- How can film editing change the meaning or effect of what is seen by the viewer?
- Why would a documentary filmmaker such as Albert Maysles avoid the overuse of editing?
3. How Did Documentary Photographers Set the Stage for Direct Cinema?
Documentary filmmakers such as Albert Maysles owe a debt to the many outstanding documentary photographers that introduced the idea of capturing real lives in still photographs. Notable exemplars of this art include the Depression-era Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, whose job it was to record the poverty and despair of poor farmers. Walker Evans, whose photography graces the pages of LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN (with text by James Agee), was another great documentary photographer of that era. Watch (or read) the NOW interview with Maysles and then share with students some of the work of documentary photographers. Discuss the art of black and white photography and look particularly at the way these photographers use framing. Are these photographs exhibiting the kind of "heart to heart" technique that Maysles advocates? Some useful resources on documentary photography:
About.com provides a directory of resources linking to a variety of documentary photography sites.
Every Picture Tells a Story: Documentary Photography and the Great Depression
This site from George Mason University describes the purpose of FSA photographers and the impact of their work. A series of activities helps site visitors examine documentary photographs and make decisions that documentary photographers would have made.
Walker Evans Revolutionizes Documentary Photography
This site from the University of Virginia also discusses and shows FSA photography, but focuses on the work of Walker Evans.
Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" Photographs in the Farm Security Administration Collection: An Overview
This Library of Congress feature looks at Dorothea Lange's best known photograph and the series it came from. A bibliography of related resources is also provided.
The Texas Center for Documentary Photography features some arresting photographs of scenes in Iraq and Afghanistan taken by contemporary documentary photographer Alan Pogue.
The University of California, Riverside, provides an online exhibit of female documentary photographers.
4. Explore the Power of Sound in Telling a Story
One crucial aspect of creating a documentary that beginning filmmakers often overlook is the quality of the sound. There are many wonderful examples of documentary artists who work exclusively in sound, and their work is often aired on public radio. Have your students listen to several examples of this art, easily available online at some of these sites:
National Public Radio
Look under programming for shows such as "Lost and Found Sound" or "American Radio Works." Recommended "Lost and Found Sound" stories include "Remembering the Galveston Storm of 1900" or "Voices from the Dust Bowl." Also, on the NPR home page, insert the phrase "Youth Radio" into the search box to find stories created and recorded by adolescents like your students.
The radio documentaries at this site seek to depict "the lives of Americans living in communities often neglected or misunderstood."
This American Life
The weekly radio program seeks to document everyday life in the United States.
As they listen, ask them to think about the way sound documentarians "get close" to their subjects, similar to the Maysles style. Have them pay attention to the writing of the script, to sound effects, and to the variety of voices heard. Then, ask them to create their own radio documentary using a cassette recorder. Discuss how quality sound contributes to the storytelling process, whether on radio or in film.
About the Author
Susan Hull has taught in Albemarle County, Virginia, outside of Charlottesville, for many years. She presently teaches English, American Studies, and broadcast journalism at Western Albemarle High School. She holds a BA in English from Brown University, a Master's in Education from the University of Virginia, and a Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Virginia. She is a member of a poetry group called "For Crying out Loud!" and has had poems and short stories published in several small journals.