America through the Lens: The Art of the Television Documentary

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Grades 10–12

Class Description

By examining, comparing, and contrasting documentaries from the Paley Center's collection, students will explore the documentary form to learn how different techniques best serve individual visions and stories.


As a group, provide definitions for the following words and concepts, which will be referenced during the class.

Types of Documentaries:

NEWSREEL: short form documentary that focuses on current events, news, or topical issues

CINEMA VERITÉ: a French documentary form that focuses on complete reality and aims to capture life exactly as it is; literally means “film of truth”

PROPAGANDA: documentary meant to sway the feelings or ideas of viewers in one specific direction, often using misleading content

DIRECT CINEMA: similar to Cinema Verité style, these documentaries represent reality truthfully

COMPILATION FILM: a documentary composed only of archival footage

EXPOSITORY FILM: a documentary that aims to inform the audience about a particular issue; can take a persuasive voice to sway audience thoughts

OBSERVATIONAL: documentary that completely removes the filmmaker’s presence within the film

INTERACTIVE: documentary where the filmmaker takes an active role within the film, often in terms of narration or interacting with others on screen


Documentary Components:
A-ROLL: primary footage, captured by the filmmaker

B-ROLL: secondary footage, used to cut away from A-roll

VISUAL TRACK: the visual footage of the documentary

SOUND TRACK: the audio aspect of the documentary; can include dialogue, narration, music, and sound effects

TEXT TRACK: written text that appears in documentary film

ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE: Film footage from the past; can be researched and used within documentaries 

DIEGETIC SOUND: Naturally occurring sounds that are created by people or objects on screen or whose presence is implied through the sound’s occurrence


Other Important Vocabulary:

BIAS/AGENDA: a specific idea or perspective that the filmmaker tries to express with the intention of influencing the audience

PERSPECTIVE/POV: the specific voice from which the documentary is told

OBSERVATIONAL MODE: Maintaining an unobtrusive camera and filmmaker in the documentary 

PARTICIPATORY MODE: Emphasizing the interactions between camera/filmmaker and the subject of a documentary 

PERFORMATIVE MODE: Emphasizing the filmmaker’s subjective perspective or personal ideas about the documentary subject

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