Final frame of the life story of Direct Cinema’s father

Decades before there was reality TV, there was reality filmmaking, and they are nearly polar opposites. The style of filmmaking Robert Drew pioneered was known as Direct Cinema in its early days, though now it is interchangeably referred to as American cinéma vérité. It was the purest form of documentary storytelling — letting life play out in front of the camera, the filmmaker would then find the story, the “truth,” in the footage. Drew preferred to call it “reality filmmaking.”

One of my favorite notions in my years at TIME was that Drew and his associates (filmmakers who would go on to greatness, like Ricky Leacock, Al Maysles and D. A. Pennebaker) developed the techniques, and produced the first films in the genre, in the very same building where I worked 50 years later. Most important was the development of the shooting rig — making a portable 16mm camera that could float with the subject, and had synchronous sound. Drew — a former WWII fighter pilot who afterward learned how to make photographs and went on to become a LIFE magazine picture editor — came up with the idea as a Nieman fellow at Harvard, then hit up Time Inc founder Henry Luce for money to develop it.

Robert L. Drew  Photo: Drew Associates
Robert L. Drew
Photo: Drew Associates

“It was my idea that television journalism should be more human and spontaneous and involving,” Drew said in Peter Witonick’s film “Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment,” about the movement he spawned. After making a film in 1954 for TIME with NBC, he decided he didn’t like the staid and formulaic way of making news documentaries. “The reason my program was dull,” he said, “and the reason all documentaries were dull, mostly, is that they were lectures.”

Drew built a camera/sound unit that would allow him and one other to follow a young senator from Massachusetts as he ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1960.  The resulting film, Primary, about JFK’s primary campaign against Hubert Humphrey, was a seminal achievement in cinema and, as Drew called it in a 1960 interview, “a whole new journalism.”

“The real life never got out of the film of television set,” Drew said about previous documentaries. This new kind of storytelling would be a “theater without actors, plays without playwrights, reporting without summary and opinion. It would be the ability to look in at times on people’s lives and see a kind of truth.”

Today we’re spoiled by the many ways we can document the truth around us. Drew’s camera was the precursor to the camcorder, and I’m sure he marveled at the more recent technologies that came along — the DSLR that shoots video, the iPhone camera, the GoPro. I know I certainly marvel at all we have now, and I am equally in awe of what Drew made from scratch 54 years ago.

Robert Drew died yesterday in Connecticut. He was 90 years old.

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