Robert Drew, Primary and the birth of Cinema Verite.


Tonight at the Emerson Arts Theater in Boston, legendary documentary maker Robert Drew spoke to a crowded room about how he changed the documentary world forever.

He was speaking after a double-bill of two of the films he made about John F Kennedy, Primary and Crisis: A Presidential Commitment. The first follows Hubert Humphrey and John F Kennedy as they face off for the Presidency in the 1960 Wisconsin Primary and the second follows the decision-making process inside the White House in 1963 as Jack and Bobby, his Attourney General, move to make desegregation of Schools a reality in the face of opposition in the South.

What makes these films special is not just the fascinating backstage access to one of the world’s best loved politicans, but the introduction of a style of film making that had never been seen before. A handheld camera follows Kennedy and Humphrey as they move through crowds, make phone calls, ride in cars and smile on stages. The voices of the crowd play under shots of the candidates shaking hands, having their photographs taken, the focus blurs as the camera swings to follow action, nervous hands fiddle behind backs, the future President waits in dim light for the votes to be counted. Intimacy and action combine in a new form that became known as cinema verite.

Drew was keen to point out that its not as easy as it looks.

‘Its very hard to get good results in cinema verite style. People think you just follow somebody’. He described how it took 5 years for them to get camera and sound small enough to handhold in the way they did and everything that could go wrong, went wrong every day. ‘I can’t tell you how many times we had flash frames, bad sound or had to lose shots because the camera was too shaky’.

Drew’s crew on these films went on to become the stars of American documentary film making – Albert Maysles, DA Pennebaker and Richard Leacock. Together they evolved a style that would be copied all over the world.

‘Godard shook his camera to look like us and feature films began shaking their camera to look like Godard.’ But Drew insists he would rather not have camera shake. What’s important to him is getting to see ‘into other people’s lives’. ‘It’s a good idea, a powerful idea and I can’t see it going away.’

When asked what he thought of the future of documentaries he had this to say,

‘I predicted that someday you’d be able to walk into a drugstore and buy a camera the size of your fist and shoot better footage than we could with a 16mm camera and it happened. And now I’m making a prediction that talent will rise up. We don’t know where they’ll come from, they might come from business, grade school, the military. We’re seeing it in the footage coming in now from the middle east. Talent will rise up.’

Speaking three days after his 88th birthday, Drew left the audience with a sense of optimism for the future of documentary, and at the same time, immediate and intimate images of a remarkable history.

Screening Began: 7pm 02/18/12

Copy written by: 11pm 02/18/12

Posted Sunday Morning – but FAILED to manage to upload a photo from my iPhoto!!

1 thought on “Robert Drew, Primary and the birth of Cinema Verite.

  1. Helen, excellent job turning both the films and the remarks about them into a coherent and interesting narrative – it’s a great provocation to think about how handheld, home-made looking footage has turned into an everyday reality. I agree the story would have been stronger with one or more images – I think it also could benefit from linking to the rich material you’re talking about here. A product of reporting live, I’m sure, but a surefire way to make this a stronger piece with a few minutes of online work later.

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