Published October 16, 2014 by Gregg Schieve
Robert Drew passed away this past summer. He was 90. Why should people in our industry care about Robert Drew? Because Drew was a documentary filmmaker and generally regarded as the father of American cinema verite. He hated talking heads. Not The Talking Heads, but talking-head interviews where all the viewer sees and hears is someone talking. Drew made more than 100 films. Perhaps his most well known film Primary (1960), about the Wisconsin Primary election between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy, is considered to be one of the first American cinema verite documentaries made.
First, a brief explanation of the cinema verite filmmaking technique. Cinema verite, or direct cinema, is a style of documentary filmmaking that allows the camera to record people and events in a natural, unaware-of-the-camera manner. The camera becomes a "fly on the wall" observer. Typically, stories are told in the words and actions of the subjects, with little or no voiceover.
So again, why should we care about Robert Drew?
Because Drew pioneered this very effective way to tell a story that is widely used in documentary filmmaking today. It is one of many techniques we use here at Tweedee Productions to tell great stories. I would argue it is our most effective storytelling method. Stories are more compelling when they show people to people. Stories are more compelling when they convey emotion and realism. Stories are more compelling when they're not overwrought with excessive camera techniques or unmotivated special effects. Stories are more compelling when the viewer can actually understand the story! Robert Drew understood all of this as being the stuff of great storytelling.
What's the point of producing a video if no one understands what you're trying to say? In today's world of digital video it is easy to layer on gobs of special effects to mask a poorly told story. It is more challenging to shoot a story shot by shot, scene by scene, letting the subject tell the story. I would argue the later is a more effective way to communicate. This is what Drew understood and practiced well.
I never knew who Robert Drew was until I read about his passing. Yet, I've been a happy practitioner of his techniques for the past 30 years!