Robert Drew, pioneering documentary filmmaker, dies at 90

By Andrew Lapin

Robert Drew employed documentary filmmaking techniques today commonly referred to as cinema verite. (Photo: Patrick Toole)

Drew used documentary filmmaking techniques now commonly referred to as cinema verité. (Photo: Patrick Toole)

Robert Drew, an influential documentary filmmaker who helped create the cinema verité style of filmmaking and made more than a dozen movies for public TV, died July 30 at his home in Sharon, Conn., due to complications from old age. He was 90.

Drew began his career in media as a correspondent and editor for Life magazine in the 1950s, after serving in World War II as a fighter pilot. His 1960 documentary Primary followed presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey through the Wisconsin primary. By relying on handheld camerawork and capturing conversations between major characters as they occurred, the film presented a new way of filming news events by forgoing a newscaster’s wraparound framing.

“What was on television at the time was word logic — you can turn off the picture and still get the story, for the most part,” said Drew’s son, Thatcher Drew. “But there’s a second way to do it, which is picture logic. And his films were picture logic; that is, whole sequences could take place without a narration and certainly without an on-camera narrator who imposed himself or herself on the process.”

Primary was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, as was Drew’s 1963 documentary Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, about efforts to racially integrate the University of Alabama. The filmmaker formed the production studios Drew Associates in 1960, joined by influential documentarians such as D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles.

Drew directed and produced several films for PBS broadcast on programs including Frontline and American Experience. For Auction: An American Hero, about a farm auctioneer, won the duPont-Columbia award when it aired on PBS in 1986.

Drew continued making films into his 80s. His 2004 documentary From Two Men and a War, recounting his experiences as a WWII fighter pilot and his friendship with war correspondent Ernie Pyle, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Please send obituary notices to lapin@current.org

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