Home Cinema Verite About Us Film Library Picture Book Contact
Drew Associates
 
Cinema Verite

THE MAKING OF THE CINEMA VERITE BREAKTHROUGH
IN AMERICAN FILM

PRIMARY

In 1960, when Robert Drew produced "Primary", it was recognized as a breakthrough, the beginning of what came to be called "Cinema Verite," in America. "Primary" was the first film in which the sync sound camera moved freely with characters throughout a breaking story.

Drew, a former LIFE magazine correspondent and editor, wanted to expand LIFE's candid still photography into sound and motion pictures. He developed his ideas into new editorial approaches for candid film reporting while on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. At Time Inc. he began to implement those ideas, first by managing the engineering of light weight equipment and then creating in 1960 an organization that could undertake the making of his first candid film.

For his first subject Drew chose a young senator, John F. Kennedy, who was running against Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic presidential nomination in Wisconsin. Drew brought photographer Richard Leacock with him to meet Pierre Salinger, who sent them to Detroit to meet Kennedy. Drew and Leacock flew with Kennedy to Washington, where Drew outlined his new form of reporting in which the camera would be with the senator from dawn to dusk and shoot everything he did.

"Kennedy asked questions about how this would work. Was I out to get him? He didn't use those words, but that was his question," recalls Drew. "I told him we were partial to neither side and would edit fairly, and for this to work at all, he would have to trust me." He gave me a long look and said, "If I don't call you by tomorrow, we're on." "And he didn't call, and we were on."

Drew got the same agreement from Humphrey and "Primary" was set up. His idea was that he and Leacock would divide their time between Kennedy and Humphrey from dawn to midnight, day after day, for five days of intense campaigning. Drew carried a recorder synchronized through a wire to the camera operated by Leacock. Drew assigned photographers Al Maysles, Terrence McCartney Filgate, and Bill Knoll to round out the coverage. D.A. Pennebaker joined the teams for the last evening of the campaign.

The free wheeling photography in "Primary" captured the characters and flavor of campaign politics as it had never before been seen on film. Kennedy's rational, charismatic presence, squealing urban crowds, Jackie Kennedy's radiance, Bobby Kennedy's shy charm on the stump for his brother; Humphrey's down home populist appeal to farmers, his humor and affection for his wife, Muriel; the anxiety and contrasting styles of the two candidates as they anticipated the returns.

With this new, long running, candid footage, Drew was able to outline the editing for a story that would tell itself through the dramatic logic of people living through an event with less than two minutes of narration.

"Primary" received the Robert Flaherty Award and the American Film Festival Blue Ribbon in 1960 and was recognized around the world as a breakthrough in documentary filmmaking. Dubbed "cinema verite" in Europe, Drew's form was quickly copied in documentary and feature films. But missing the comfort of standard narration "You've got some nice footage there, Bob" the American television networks declined to broadcast it. "The immediate effect of the film in this country," says Drew, "was on Time Life Broadcast. "They asked me to make more films."

In 1990, "Primary" was selected as an historic American film for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

 

CRISIS

Before Kennedy's inauguration, Robert Drew screened "Primary" for him in West Palm Beach. "At that time I was proposing that we make a new kind of history of the presidency," recalls Drew, "that we would see and feel all the things that bore on the presidency at a given time the expressions on faces, the mood of the country, the tensions in the room so that future presidents could look back at this and see and learn. And I thought Kennedy, who had written a history book, might agree that history should be recorded in a different way."

Kennedy saw the historical significance of this new kind of filmmaking, and when Drew proposed to make a film on JFK, as President dealing with a "Crisis", Kennedy said, "Yes-what if I could see what went on in the White House during the 24 hours before FDR declared war on Japan?"

Kennedy asked Drew to do some tests first to see if he would forget the cameras in the White House as he had during the Wisconsin campaign. Eight weeks later, Drew went into the Oval Office with a two-man team and recorded for two days. He captured on film a young president wrapped up in work on poverty in West Virginia, the Cold War in Africa and military maneuvers off Cuba. Kennedy had forgotten the camera so completely, that when, in a meeting with the Joint Chiefs, the subject turned toward Cuba, a general had to remind the president that the camera was still there.

These tests were the first films ever to show a president doing real work in the White House. They became part of a Drew special for ABC, ADVENTURES ON THE NEW FRONTIER, and succeeded in clearing the way for "Crisis": BEHIND A PRESIDENTIAL COMMITMENT, Drew's second major film on JFK.

"Crisis" documented the showdown between Alabama Governor George Wallace and President Kennedy over the integration of the University of Alabama.

Wallace vowed to stand in the school house door to prevent the registration of two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood; Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the President were committed to upholding a federal court order that demanded the admission of the students.

In the Oval Office, the President and Robert Kennedy hammered out a strategy they hoped would gain admission for the two students without having to jail the governor: in a first try to register the students, they would allow the governor to turn them back; in a second try, the President would take over the Alabama National Guard. Meanwhile, five Drew teams ranged from the Oval Office to the Justice Department to the University of Alabama, capturing the human details of a drama deeply affecting the country, the civil rights movement and the presidency.

In "Crisis", we see Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach confronting the governor twice. The first time, Katzenbach turned back in the face of the governor's defiance; the second time, confronted by his own National Guard, the governor backed down, and the students were admitted. That night, in a nationally televised speech, President Kennedy became the first president since Abraham Lincoln to commit the power of the presidency behind civil rights as a moral issue.

"Crisis" was described by reviewer John Horn as "an unprecedented television documentary...a milestone in film journalism."

FACES OF NOVEMBER

Robert Drew's third major film on Kennedy, "Faces of November", is a view of reactions to President Kennedy's funeral as reflected in the faces of participants and onlookers on November 22, 1963. "Faces of November" was the first film to win two first prizes at the Venice Film Festival in both theatrical and television categories.

The three Drew films on JFK are a history of his years from young senator to president to fallen hero, and the beginning of the history of Cinema Verite in America.