Robert Drew, cinema verite documentarian, dies at 90

Robert Drew, a pioneer of the modern documentary, Robert Drew, a pioneer of the modern documentary, has died at age 90 at his home in Sharon, Conn. On April 27, 2007, he was honored during an event at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. With him, from left, are his late wife and collaborator, Anne Drew, and Ed Carter and Grace Guggenheim Photo Credit: AP / Neshan Naltchayan

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SHARON, Conn. - Robert Drew, a pioneer of the modern documentary who in "Primary" and other movies mastered the intimate, spontaneous style known as cinema verite and schooled a generation of influential directors that included D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles, has died at age 90.

His son Thatcher Drew confirmed he died Wednesday morning at his home in Sharon.

Starting in 1960 with "Primary," Drew produced and sometimes directed a series of television documentaries that took advantage of such innovations as light hand-held cameras that recorded both sound and pictures. With filmmakers newly unburdened, nonfiction movies no longer had to be carefully staged and awkwardly narrated. Directors could work more like journalists, following their subjects for hours and days at a time and capturing revealing moments. Little, if any, voice-over was needed.

"Nonfiction filmmakers were afflicted by two problems, one technical, the other spiritual," Drew once said. "Technically, they did not have the equipment to do the sort of work I had in mind. Spiritually, they didn't care about the work because they'd been mistrained. They'd been mistrained because their equipment was so heavy and complicated that it made it impossible to shoot in situations where you could really capture reality."

Drew's dozens of films included "The Chair," a 1963 documentary about a death penalty case in Illinois, and "784 Days That Changed America: From Watergate to Resignation," winner in 1982 of a Peabody award. Many of his movies were edited and coproduced by his wife, Anne Drew, who died in 2012.

While a photographer and editor with Life, Drew formed Drew Associates in 1960 with the goal of applying his magazine experience to films. Among those joining him were such future directors as Pennebaker ("Don't Look Back," "The War Room"), Maysles (who with brother David made "Gimme Shelter" and "Grey Gardens") and Richard Leacock ("Happy Mother's Day").

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"I wondered why documentaries on television were dull," he told The New York Times in 2013. "I had no doubt we could make a lighter camera, and I started with that premise and started finding people who could do that."

The approach, called cinema verite, or direct cinema, also was used in feature films, by the American director John Cassavetes and the French directors Louis Malle and Agnes Varda. And the new style led to fierce and enduring debates about truth in movies, whether a fly-on-the-wall approach was any more objective than a narrative with a point of view worked out in advance.

Frederick Wiseman, the award-winning documentary maker, would call cinema verite "just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning."

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"Primary" is widely ranked among the most important political documentaries and in 1990 was entered into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry for historic works. It follows presidential candidates and fellow Democrats Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Sen. John F. Kennedy as each campaigned in Wisconsin, a neighboring state to Humphrey's Minnesota, for his party's nomination, which Kennedy eventually received.

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