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R.I.P Robert Drew

in Filmmaking
on Jul 30, 2014

A press release prepared by documentarian Robert Drew’s family announced his death today at age 90. Drew is remembered as a pioneer of cinéma vérité — now a term thrown around carelessly to denote just about any documentary assembled without talking heads or a narrator, which is a radical oversimplification of vérité’s possibilities. It’s not oversimplifying to note that Drew’s Primary (covering the JFK-Hubert Humphrey faceoff in the 1960 Wisconsin primary) and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (examining the administration’s standoff against segregationist George Wallace) are two of the key documents of the Kennedy presidency, whose levels of candor, access and good judgment about where to point the camera when remain startlingly fresh.

There was much more to Drew’s lengthy career, but start with this brief interview snippet from 1962, in which Drew explained how his dissatisfaction with an early documentary led him to retreat to a formative course of study at Harvard. Wondering how to transcend what he considered the mediocre TV journalism of his day, Drew gave equal importance to reading novels, watching TV and generally pondering how to produce work that would be “theater without actors; it would be plays without playwrights; it would be reporting without summary and opinion; it would be the ability to look in on people’s lives at crucial times from which you could deduce certain things and see a kind of truth that can only be gotten from personal experience.”

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