A Breakthrough Moment in Reality Filmmaking

Latest entries

“The Children Were Watching” Joins The Criterion Channel

The latest Drew Associates classic film to join the lineup at The Criterion Channel is The Children Were Watching. This 26-minute documentary, filmed by Richard Leacock, lets you feel what it was like to be there in 1960 when Ruby Bridges, Tessie Prevost, and other young African-American children bravely integrated the William Frantz Elementary School Read More

2019 Drew Award Winners Announced

Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, the dynamic filmmaking team behind this year’s American Factory, shared the 2019 Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence. American Factory went on to win the Oscar for Feature Documentary, the third time the filmmakers who won this award went on to capture the year’s Academy Award. The Robert and Anne Read More

In Memoriam: D.A. Pennebaker

Our hearts are heavy with the news that D.A. Pennebaker, our friend and master filmmaker, has died. His passion to capture life on film, without artifice or interference, led him early in his career to three others who had similar visions: Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and Albert Maysles. That team invented a new form of Read More

2018 Drew Award Winners Announced

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the filmmaking team behind Meru and this year’s Free Solo, are the winners of the 2018 Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence, which recognizes a mid-career filmmaker distinguished for observational cinema. They will share a $5,000 cash prize sponsored by Drew Associates. The award will be presented Read More

2017 Drew Award Winners Announced

Filmmaking partners Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are the winners of the 2017 Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence, which recognizes a mid-career filmmaker distinguished for observational cinema. They will share a $5,000 cash prize sponsored by Drew Associates. The award will be presented at the Visionaries Tribute Award Luncheon at the DOC NYC Read More

2016 Drew Award Winner Announced

Dawn Porter, director of “Trapped,” is the winner of the 2016 Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence, which recognizes a mid-career filmmaker distinguished for observational cinema. She will receive a $5,000 cash prize sponsored by Drew Associates. The award will be presented at the Visionaries Tribute Award Luncheon at the DOC NYC Festival Read More

Richard Brody: ‘The Unified Field of Cinematic Activity’

In his inimitable way, Richard Brody of The New Yorker probes the connecting points between filmmakers and their art of observational cinema in his most recent review of Albert and David Maysles’ work (with a nod to Robert Drew), screening now at a beautiful retrospective at The Film Forum. Read Brody’s full essay here.

Disc Review: Boston Globe on Drew’s Kennedy Films

Watching the inter-cut scenes of Hubert Humphrey shaking hands with farmers, then John F. Kennedy stirring young women into a “pre-Beatlemania frenzy,” Boston Globe reviewer Peter Keough had this to say about the films in The Criterion Collection’s re-mastered disc release of The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates: “…the point is clear: The Read More

JFK’s Wisconsin Primary

Since 1960 every Democratic Presidential nominee has won the Wisconsin primary. Learn more about the 1960 Wisconsin primary where JFK solidified his position as one of the most important figures in American Politics at The Criterion Collection. Criterion provides insight about this historic election with clips from Primary, the revolutionary documentary providing never before seen insight Read More

Full Frame to Screen Two Drew Kennedy Films

The 19th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival will feature two Drew Associates films as part of this year’s thematic program, “Perfect and Otherwise: Documenting American Politics.” Curated by filmmaker R.J. Cutler, the films will focus on the inherent drama of the American electoral system. The two films, “Primary” and “Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment,” Read More

Criterion Live! to Feature Drew Kennedy Films

On April 6, The Criterion Collection will host its first-ever “Criterion Collection Live!” event at The Metrograph in Manhattan. Designed to give ticketholders a peek into Criterion’s discriminating process for picking films to add to its collection, and its process of remastering them for optimal visual and audio quality, the night will also feature discussions Read More

Kennedy Films Join The Criterion Collection

Remastered for unparalleled visual and audio quality, the four Kennedy films produced by Robert Drew and his Associates, will be released on disc by The Criterion Collection on April 26. These are the classic films that form the bedrock of what President John F. Kennedy understood would be a new form of history. Drew and Read More

Rare Drew Films Streaming on SundanceNow

These are rarely seen, cutting-edge films that form the bedrock of early American cinéma vérité. Robert Drew’s vision went far beyond his breakthrough film, PRIMARY, when he and Richard Leacock trained the world’s first sync-sound camera rig on John F. Kennedy campaigning for president. Drew set out to prove that there was a superior way Read More

Filmmaker Kim Longinotto To Receive 2015 Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence

(from the Oct. 13, 2015 DOC NYC press release)  The Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence goes to a mid-career filmmaker distinguished for observational cinema. This year’s recipient is Kim Longinotto, who will receive a $5,000 cash prize sponsored by Drew Associates. For more than thirty years, Longinotto has made acclaimed documentaries that Read More

Laura Poitras to Receive First-Ever Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence

(from October 31, 2014 DOC NYC press release) Laura Poitras (CITIZENFOUR) will receive DOC NYC’s first annual Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence, a $5000 prize to celebrate the work of a mid-career documentary maker upholding the traditions of observational cinema. The award will be formally presented at the DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute at Read More

Robert Drew, Pioneering Documentary Filmmaker, Dies at 90

Documentary filmmaker Robert L. Drew, a father of American cinéma vérité, died today at his home in Sharon, Connecticut. He was 90 years old. Drew and his associates pioneered a new kind of reality filmmaking in the early 1960s that is now a staple of the documentary form. Drew made more than 100 films over Read More

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- February 1, 2015

(In a booklet he wrote decades later, this is how Robert Drew described the breakthrough moment in reality filmmaking.)

I followed the candidate through a doorway holding a microphone overhead. My sound recorder was connected by a wire to the camera in the hands of Richard Leacock.

It was 1960, the year of a presidential election. I had selected as a subject of my first candid film a young senator, John F. Kennedy, who was running in the Wisconsin Democratic primary. The urbane Kennedy faced a Midwestern senator, Hubert Humphrey, an opponent who was a favorite of Wisconsin farmers.

For John F. Kennedy, winning the primaries could be a political breakthrough. For ourselves, passing through that doorway, linked by a wire whose signal would allow us to edit our film and sound tape together, we were joyously aware that this passage was a breakthrough for candid filming. Leacock carried the only camera that had been synchronized to my recorder.

Kennedy and Humphrey quickly forgot the camera and those of the other photographers I had assigned to work with us: Albert Maysles, Terence Macartney-Filgate, Bill Knoll and, for one evening, D.A. Pennebaker.

For five days and nights we recorded almost every move the candidates made, the sights and sounds of the campaign and the way the public responded.

For one sequence at a sensitive time, Leacock and I split up. He filmed alone the tension in Kennedy’s hotel room as election returns came in. Four cameras converged on Kennedy’s victory.

With twenty hours of candid film in hand, I was able to plan the editing of a story that would tell itself through characters in action, with less than two minutes of narration. I was still ecstatic when I arrived in a Minneapolis hotel room that Pennebaker had worked tirelessly to outfit for editing, with 40,000 feet of films that, I found out, could not be edited.

It was an old story, the failure of one small part and an old struggle, to try to survive the malfunction. There had been a fault in the cable carrying the sync sound between camera and recorder. Picture and sound could not be synchronized.

That, however, was before we discovered in a portable editing machine invented for us by Loren Ryder a box with a crank on the side. Turn the crank and you adjust tape speeds versus film, allowing the two to be synchronized (laboriously) without having the audio pitch change. This miracle, a month of cranking and six weeks of editing by Leacock, Pennebaker, Filgate, Maysles, Bob Farren and myself gave us “Primary.”


(A page from Robert Drew’s handwritten notes detailing the assignments for editing “Primary.”)

The first reaction to “Primary” from the networks, Time Inc., and viewers of the five Time-owned television stations that aired it, was an overwhelming silence. Then came the Robert Flaherty Award, American Film Festival Blue Ribbon, word from the greats – John Grierson, Jean Rouch – and imitation by Godard.

After JFK’s election and before his inauguration I screened “Primary” for the President-elect and Mrs. Kennedy at their compound in West Palm Beach. A few minutes after the screening began Kennedy shouted, “Get Joe out here!” and his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, appeared.

Kennedy appreciated our filming as a form of history. I proposed to make a next film on him as a President having to deal with a crisis. “Yes,” he said. “What if I could look back and see what went on in the White House in the 24 hours before Roosevelt declared war on Japan?”

But he said that I had better do some shooting in the Oval Office to see if he would forget the camera there as he had in Wisconsin. Later, I went into the White House for a two-day test shoot with Lee Hall and D.A. Pennebaker. I felt that I was invisible, a kind of fly on the wall. During a meeting of the Joint Chiefs, when the subject of Cuba arose, a general had to remind the President that the camera was still there.

The test produced the first film ever shot on a president doing real work in the White House. I incorporated it in a special for ABC called “Adventures on the New Frontier” and began a mental countdown toward a presidential crisis.


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