Capturing the Stories of Ordinary People: Albert Maysles and Direct Cinema
The following ideas are adaptable classroom activities that encourage students to be active citizens. They are inspired by an interview with filmmaker Albert Maysles 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).
In his interview, Maysles advises young filmmakers and documentary artists to express empathy for their subjects, to reveal the truth about them in ways that are not hurtful or humiliating, and to pay more attention to ordinary people. (Read more about Maysles' work at the NOW Web site.) The following suggested activities are ways to send students out into the world to practice Maysles' principles as they learn how to be documentary artists.
1. Stand in the Shoes of Another
Use a camcorder to document a day in the life of someone you know very well - perhaps a close friend or a family member. What new insight or understanding are you given from the experience? How can this insight be passed along to others who watch the video? Is your documentary "an act of love," as Maysles suggests documentaries should be? Ask students who are willing to share their work with their classmates. If many members of your class have made such documentaries, host a film festival and invite the school or larger community.
2. Uncover a Neglected Community Voice
Use a video camera to capture the daily struggles of a "hidden" person in your community - a homeless person, an invalid, an elderly person, or someone similar. Begin by watching or reading the NOW interview with Maysles and note his recommended approach to capturing important moments with your film subject. Be sure to remain empathetic throughout the filming and develop a relationship of trust with your subject. Maysles says in his experience, many "hidden" people would like to have their stories told, and that, "The disclosure instinct happens to be much stronger in people than the instinct to keep a secret." After the video documentaries have been completed, discuss with students what they observed during production. Are there ways the community can help this person with their struggles? As appropriate, encourage students to share their work with community leaders and advocate for positive changes on behalf of their documentary subjects.
3. Capture Your Family's History
Use a cassette recorder or a camcorder to record an interview with a grandparent or another elderly relative. Plan your questions so that you get your subject talking about family history. Such an interview will prove to be valuable to you and to other family members of your generation, as you get older! You will also gain understanding of more than just your own family's history as you learn about the way the older generation lived. Then, share your interview with family members at a family gathering. (Some of your family will certainly ask for copies of the tape.) Be sure to also provide a copy to the local historical society. (See NOW's instructions on doing an oral history of a veteran for more information.)
4. Record a Community Event
Document in still photographs the stages of an event in your community, such as a parade, a peace rally, the demolition of a building, the razing of a forest for a new development, the construction of a new high-rise, etc. Talk to people connected to the event and include quotes to accompany your photographs. Mount your photographs artfully along with the written text as part of a class or school art exhibit. Consider also sharing your work with the local newspaper for possible publication.
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.