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Ohio's Robert Drew, The Father of Cinema Verite

Ohio's Robert Drew, The Father of Cinema Verite

Picture of Sophia White
Updated: 3 January 2017
Cinéma vérité, or ‘observational cinema’, is the most direct form of filmmaking. From its inception in the 1950s and 1960s, it changed the shape of documentaries and how we perceive factual storytelling. As one of the pioneers of cinéma vérité, Drew’s influence on filmmaking can be seen throughout the medium, from Oscar-winning documentaries to sitcoms and reality TV, and has largely shaped the modern film and televisual landscape.

Early Life

Robert Drew was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1924. In 1942 he left high school to join the U.S. Army Air Force as a cadet and at 19 he completed 31 successful combat missions as a combat pilot in Italy. In January 1944, his plane was shot down behind enemy lines, where he survived for three and a half months before returning to his squadron. Drew returned to the US and became a pilot with the First Fighter Group, the first squadron to fly jet fighter pilots. He was still in training when the war ended.

When working on the base, Drew wrote a first-person essay on what it was like to fly a jet plane for Life magazine, which landed him a job as correspondent for the famous publication.

The Beginnings of Cinéma Vérité

Drew worked his way up the ranks at Life, and ran a documentary film operation for the magazine by 1950. During his time at Life Drew was a recipient of the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1955, and investigated how to make documentary films more exciting.

He concluded that ‘TV documentaries were dull because they misused the medium’. With his background in journalism, Drew wanted to find a way to ‘drop word logic and find a dramatic logic in which things really happened’. His mission was then simple: to convey experience.

‘Leave the rest,’ he wrote, ‘the exposition, analysis, elucidation, to others in the media better suited to those tasks.’ Drew therefore adhered to a strict journalistic code in his filmmaking and disallowed the directing of subject, the set-up of shots and the use of an on-camera narrator. The raw footage would then be edited to portray a dramatic narrative that gave the viewer a fly-on-the-wall perspective.

Drew’s next task was to tackle the issue of technical equipment. He re-engineered a motion picture camera and sound recorder so that they could move naturalistically and in sync with a subject. This greater mobility afforded to filmmakers led to the vast popularisation of handheld recording, which is still the most popular form of documentary recording to this day.

A year later, Drew teamed up with several other filmmakers including Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert Maysles formed Drew Associates to make his type of documentary. The result was cinéma vérité.

The Kennedy Films

Drew Associates’ best-known films revolve around the Kennedy family. The first film the Associates made with their new equipment was Primary (1960), a film following a young Massachusetts senator, John F. Kennedy, who was running for President.

Drew described the filming process as follows: ‘For five days and nights we recorded almost every move the candidates made, the sights and sounds of the campaign, and the way the public responded. For one sequence at a sensitive time, Leacock and I split up. He filmed alone the tension in Kennedy’s hotel room as election returns came in. Four cameras converged on Kennedy’s victory. With twenty hours of candid film in hand, I was able to plan the editing of a story that would tell itself through characters in action, with less than two minutes of narration.’

In 1963, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963) explored Kennedy’s decision to back racial equality as a moral issue and force the integration of the University of Alabama. It is still the only time that a U.S. president has allowed an independent film crew to film White House deliberations from inside the Oval Office. The film won numerous prizes including First Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and along with Primary, was entered into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

The final Kennedy film was the 11-minute short film Faces of November (1964). The film documents President Kennedy’s state funeral without any structure or narrative. It was the first film to win prizes in the theatrical short film and television categories at Venice. Footage from the Kennedy films would also later be used for the HBO film A President to Remember.

Ten Masterworks of American Cinéma Vérité

Drew went on to make over 100 documentary films in his career, which spanned over five decades. His films focussed on a wide range of issues, from social and political issues to celebrity culture. Drew Associates have identified the following films as his masterworks, and were released as a DVD box set with an accompanying short book with diary-like entries.

In addition to Primary and A President to Remember, Drew’s most notable films include: Jane (1962), following a young Jane Fonda as she prepares to lead a Broadway show, which goes on to fail; The Chair (1962), about a crusading lawyer and his strategy to save a man from the electric chair; A Man Who Dances, an intimate portrait of one of the greatest American male ballet dancers; Mooney vs. Fowle (1962), documenting a high school football game and revolutionising the way that sports events were filmed; Storm Signal (1966), a close-up portrait of a middle-class couple suffering from heroin addiction; Blackie (1962), the story of Robert F. Blackburn as he pilots the final flight of his career; Susan Starr (1962), following a young American concert pianist as she prepares to compete at the Metropolitan Opera House; and On the Pole: Eddie Sachs (1961), filmed during and after the 1960 and 1961 Indianapolis 500.

Drew won many awards over his illustrious career, including at Cannes, London, and the Emmys, but the awards in themselves do not signify the sheer magnitude of his contribution to film. The Ten Masterworks give a snapshot of his best films, and even within these ten you are able to see the variety of the subjects that he studied. He proved that everyday characters yield interesting stories and fascinating films. From Grey Gardens to The Act of Killing, and Parks and Recreation to Keeping up with the Kardashians, Robert Drew’s contribution to filmmaking can be seen throughout our visual landscape. Following his death in July 2014 his films were archived at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.