Robert Drew established cinema vérité film style

Robert Drew is a filmmaker who revolutionized documentary film by using the cinema vérité style method. While most documentaries at the time used narrations and interviews, Drew wanted to make documentaries that are more interesting and close to real life.

In response to the documentaries and television in the 1950s, Drew said that “television was reaching more and more people, but its documentary films were not reaching me” (Rosenthal 280). Originally a photojournalist and editor for Life magazine (Mamber 23), Drew wanted to make documentaries more fascinating for the television audience. To solve this problem, Drew went to Harvard and studied storytelling. He concluded, “most documentaries were in fact lectures…with picture illustrations” (Rosenthal 282). Drew wanted documentaries to be like candid photography that would capture the real world.

While filming Primary, Drew established rules: never make the subject repeat what they said and did, be invisible, and be purely observational. Drew’s filmmaking philosophy of storytelling was evident in Primary. The film crew followed Humphrey and Kennedy around in public areas, hotels, and taxicabs. The camera gaze merely observed the politicians’ constituents, capturing their expressions and emotions. Character development is obvious when the audience tracks Kennedy and Humphrey as they try to win the hearts of Wisconsin.

The style continues for the film Football, where two rival high school teams prepare for a game. It is similar to Primary because the audience can witness both sides of the coin. Character development is apparent for the two coaches and the football players on both teams. In the film, On the Pole, the film followed racecar driver Eddie Sachs during the 1960 Indianapolis 500 race. In one scene, a homemade scaffold collapsed while people were sitting on it watching the race. The scene was shot very briefly. The accident would’ve made an interesting story, but the film retained focus on the race. When Sachs became aware of the camera’s presence, he put on an act. The audience can see him become upset at losing the game and annoyed at the camera’s intrusion (Mamber 68).

The same issue was in the film Jane, where Jane Fonda is aware of the camera and is not entirely “natural’” (Mamber 90). Mamber concludes that the only way to stay true to Drew’s filmmaking style is to follow the characters when they are “less aware of the camera during difficult moments” (Mamber 71). Crisis in these documentaries help assist in telling the story since the characters endure rising conflict, conflict, and resolution—all elements of the dramatic structure (Mamber 71). When Fonda read negative reviews in the newspaper about her performance, she was very emotional but the audience cannot tell if she’s putting on an act for the camera. But even so, it tells the audience something about the actress as a character.

When Drew first filmed Primary, it was an experiment and several mistakes were made. Several years later, Drew filmed Kennedy again, this time as President in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment. Crisis is better than Primary because the dramatic structure is very clear and the audience can get more absorbed in the thrilling situation. The audience gets to follow Kennedy leading up to the crisis in the beginning of the film, watch him endure the crisis as he send the National Guard to help escort the African-American students to the University, and to watch the conflict resolve as the students safely enroll in the school with no bloodshed. It is similar to Primary because the documentary follows both Kennedy and Governor Wallace.

Drew’s filmmaking philosophy is to pretty much document real life while telling a story. Drew’s camera style of observing the characters and being as invisible as possible has set the road for cinema-vérité filmmaking. Drew’s approach to filmmaking has been consistent in several of his films such as Primary, Football, On the Pole, Jane, and Crisis: A Presidential Commitment. His style set the trend that would affect photojournalism forever.


Mamber, Stephen. Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974.

Rosenthal, Alan. “Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop.” In The New Documentary in Action:  A Casebook in Film Making. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. 189-198.

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