NOW with Bill Moyers

This lesson is designed for Language Arts, journalism, film study, photography/videography, video production, and art classes, grades 9-12

  • Lesson Objectives
  • Related National Standards
  • Estimated Time
  • Materials Needed
  • Backgrounder for Teachers
  • Assumed Student Prior Knowledge
  • Teaching Strategy
  • Assessment Recommendations
  • Extension Ideas
  • Related Resources
  • About the Author

Lesson Objectives

Lesson Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. Discuss the contributions of Albert Maysles to documentary filmmaking and direct cinema.
  2. Compare and contrast Maysles documentary style with other forms of media.
  3. Correctly operate video recording and editing equipment to create a short film.
  4. Create and present a rationale regarding the subject of their films and what they hope others will gain from viewing it.
  5. Evaluate the films of fellow students and provide them with constructive feedback.

Related National Standards

Language Arts

Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

Standard 10: Understands the characteristics and components of the media.

Thinking and Reasoning

Standard 3: Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences.

Visual Arts

Standard 1: Understands and applies media, techniques, and processes related to the visual arts. Standard 5: Understands the characteristics and merits of one's own artwork and the artwork of others.

Estimated Time to Complete Lesson

One 90-minute class period for each Part 1-3. Part 4 will need three to four 90-minute periods.

Materials Needed

  • Handout: Interview Notes (PDF File)
  • Handout: Film Planning Guide (PDF File)
  • Handout: Peer Response Form (PDF File)
  • Video cameras for student use
  • Video editing hardware/software (if available)
  • Copy of the Albert Maysles interview from the 12/6/02 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS broadcast and TV/VCR (Note: A free transcript of this segment 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 (

Backgrounder for Teachers

This lesson gives students the opportunity to capture the stories of ordinary people on video as they practice the art of filmmaking according to the direct cinema style of documentarian Albert Maysles, whose groundbreaking work includes SALESMAN, GIMME SHELTER, GREY GARDENS, LALEE'S KIN, and others.

An essential part of the lesson is the Albert Maysles interview from the 12/6/02 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS broadcast and TV/VCR (Note: A free transcript of this segment 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 ( The segment begins with an 8 minute original film, BEFORE I LEAVE, followed by 12 minutes of interview in which Maysles talks about films he's worked on and his philosophy about documentary filmmaking.

Maysles' style 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. Its goal is to create work that captures the true essence of ordinary people and draws in the viewer by creating a sense of empathy and commonality with the subjects profiled in the work. See the Related Resources section of this lesson for more detail and discussion of Maysles' work.

Assumed Student Prior Knowledge

Students should have at least one experience with viewing a "reality television" program in order to participate in the discussion and make comparisons. They should also be familiar with the term "documentary" and have at least one experience with viewing a documentary program.

Teaching Strategy

Part 1: Tapping Student Interest: Is Reality TV Really Real?

1. Since "reality television" programming is prevalent on American television, you can stimulate interest in the lesson by asking students to answer the following question in writing: What is "reality television"?

2. After students have had 2-3 minutes to form their response, have them share what they have written with at least one other classmate.

3. Next, have students answer another question in writing: "Is reality television really real?" Again, give students 2-3 minutes to formulate answers and then share their ideas with at least one classmate.

4. Facilitate a discussion about reality television using the two earlier questions as starting points. Allow students to discuss/debate their opinions and encourage them to use specific examples they have seen to substantiate their arguments.

5. Next, ask students to define the term "documentary" in writing. Give them 2-3 minutes to formulate their definition, and then have them share it with at least one other student.

6. Working as a large group, construct a Venn Diagram or some other graphic organizer that will visually help students compare and contrast reality television and documentaries. (For a simple Venn Diagram model, please see the example provided by the San Diego County Office of Education.)

7. Facilitate a group discussion that addresses the following questions:

  • Is the production of a television program or film considered "art"?
  • What is entertainment?
  • Why do you think reality television programs have become so popular?
  • Can a documentary provide entertainment? Why or why not?
  • In what ways do reality television and documentaries differ in terms of their entertainment value?
  • Would you personally prefer to watch a program that lets you escape by being distracted or diverting your thoughts, or would you prefer to view a program that allows you to relate to another person in a way that it sticks in your mind and makes a lasting impression? Why?
8. Using what they have thought about and learned in the class discussion, have students complete the following writing assignment: Think about the television program or film that has made the greatest impression on your personally. Tell us the name of the program or film, give a short summary of its characters and contents, and explain how and why the program has impacted you. Be prepared to share your work with the class.

Part 2: Learning about Albert Maysles and Direct Cinema

1. Begin by placing students in small groups and allowing them to share their writing response from Part 1. Encourage students to ask one another questions related to the writing.

2. Next, tell students they will be learning about a filmmaker who 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. Explain that this form of filmmaking has been emulated to a degree by some reality television programs, but that in its true form, its goal is to create work that captures the true essence of ordinary people and draws in the viewer by creating a sense of empathy and commonality with the subjects profiled in the work.

3. Have students watch the NOW with BILL MOYERS interview with Albert Maysles. (Viewing time: approximately 20 minutes. The first 8 minutes is a film clip, followed by 12 minutes of interview.) To focus student viewing, ask them to complete the Interview Notes handout as they watch the video.

4. After viewing, use the questions from the Interview Notes handout to facilitate a discussion. The questions from the handout are provided here:

  • How is Maysles' filmmaking different from typical Hollywood produced films?
  • What technical changes did Maysles' filmmaking help to pioneer?
  • How does Maysles' style allow the subjects of his films to be genuine rather than putting on a performance for the camera?
  • Why does Maysles choose to focus on the common man more than those who are already well known in the media?
  • Much of Maysles' work has never been seen on television because it is neither news nor entertainment, yet he persists. What is his driving force?
  • What life lessons does Maysles attempt to provide to his viewers in this interview and in his body of work?
5. One of the film clips shown as part of the NOW interview with Maysles was entitled BEFORE I LEAVE. It was a short film about what people would want their loved ones to know before they die, and featured ordinary people discussing their wishes. Ask students to think about what they would want their families to know and brainstorm a list of thoughts related to this. Students will use this list in Part 3 of the lesson plan.

Part 3: The Art of Filmmaking

NOTE: If possible, ask a local videographer to visit the classroom as a guest speaker and teacher. Students will need to be able to work in small groups to practice the techniques as they are being taught.

1. The Maysles interview begins by reminding students that with current technology, many people can easily become filmmakers using a handheld camera and a home computer. While technology gives people the tools to make films, the camera is the eye of the poet, to paraphrase Orson Welles. Maysles reminds us that it is important to use good technique, but at the same time, one must be observant and put his/her heart and soul into the work so the subject being filmed will as well. In short, making a film is truly an art that needs to be practiced and perfected. It will be easier to focus on who is being filmed when proper use of the video camera is mastered.

2. Provide students with basic instruction on operating the camera, providing appropriate lighting, setting up angles and shots, and using the features available on the camera. This information can be taught by you or a guest instructor who is an camera expert. Encourage students to practice various techniques as they are being taught. In addition, when appropriate, refer back to Maysles' film clips from the NOW interview to illustrate lighting, angles, etc.

3. After teaching basic instructions for using the cameras, give students additional practice by asking each group to create their own version of BEFORE I LEAVE, using all members of the group as subjects for the film. They should start by referring back to their brainstormed lists from Part 2 to help them collect their thoughts. Then, each member of the group should take a turn at recording another member as he or she makes a contribution to the group's BEFORE I LEAVE film.

4. When all groups have completed their short film, gather again in a large group to view all films and evaluate the use of the camera and camera techniques.

Part 4: Emulating Maysles' Style: A Film Festival

Note: Filmmaking, editing, and the film festival should take place during class time if possible. However, the schedule may need to be adjusted based upon the availability of equipment, scheduling, the abilities of students, or other factors.

1. Begin by reminding students that the goal of Albert Maysles is to produce documentaries that:

  • Present what is truly happening behind the scenes, not narrating the event.
  • Create a piece of work that will stick in the viewers mind by engaging them in the real experiences of another person.
  • Present ordinary people for what they are, as they are.
  • Work on the premise that all people are human and deserve the opportunity to at least be understood.
  • Use the technology to help him get "close" to the subjects with the camera and psychologically.
2. Give students the opportunity to work on their own or in pairs. Their job will be to produce a short documentary (teacher should specify the length of the film) that emulates Albert Maysles' style as outlined above. Students should be given ample time to plan their film, make appropriate contacts, film, edit, and prepare for final presentation during class. Students should complete the Film Planning Guide as they create their film. The teacher should check progress regularly.

3. Once films are completed, have a class film festival. Have each person/group share the film that was produced. After showing the film, the student/pair should share why they chose the subject(s) of the film, what they hoped others would gain from experiencing the film, and what they learned from completing the project. In addition, each student audience member should complete a Peer Response Form for each film they view.

Assessment Recommendations

  1. For Parts 1 and 2 of the teaching strategy, students could be given participation grades for being actively involved in class discussion, note taking, small group, and the Venn Diagram activities. Points could also be assigned for completion of the writing assignment from Part 1 and the Interview Notes handout in Part 2.
  2. For Part 3 of the teaching strategy, students could receive a completion grade for appearing in the group's short film and for assisting with its production.
  3. For Part 4 of the teaching strategy, students could receive a grade for producing the documentary and presenting it to the class. This evaluation could be done in the form of a rubric, checklist, or authentic assessment. Students could also receive points for completing a Peer Response Form for each film.

Extension Ideas

1. Be sure to review NOW's Starter Activities and Take Action ideas related to this lesson's topic. For a low-tech alternative to this lesson's Teaching Strategy, consider studying documentary photography, as outlined in Starter Activity #3.

2. Broaden the potential film subjects by taking students out to meet ordinary people in the community or allowing them to choose people that are not part of the school community to be the subject(s) of their film.

3. Take the idea of hosting a film festival to a larger level by inviting all students in the school as well as parents, district patrons, local filmmakers, and the press to attend. Make it an evening event or something that occurs over the course of a day. Turn it into a fundraiser by serving concessions.

4. View a complete Maysles film, such as LALEE'S KIN, GREY GARDENS, or SALESMAN and have students write critical reviews of the film based on what they know about Maysles' style and how he intends to have his work perceived.

5. View a complete Maysles film and another documentary. Using a graphic organizer or written response, compare and contrast the two in terms of technical and emotional appeal.

Related Resources

Changing an Art Form
The NOW site discusses how the Maysles brothers changed filmmaking and details controversies surrounding their work.

Grey Gardens
This fan site is dedicated to Maysles' film of the same name. It includes links to biographical information and other details about the film.

Maysles Films
This site provides biographical information about Maysles as well as information about specific films, the history of the company, and other related information.

The Legacy of Albert Maysles
The MovieMaker site provides an essay and interview about Maysles and his films.

About the Author
Lisa Prososki is an independent educational consultant who taught middle school and high school social studies, English, reading, and technology courses for twelve years. Prososki has worked with PBS TeacherSource and has authored many lesson plans for various PBS programs over the past five years. In addition to conducting workshops for teachers at various state and national conventions, Prososki has also worked as an editor and authored one book.