American Cinéma Vérité: An Evolving Draft of its Development

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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- January 1, 2015

(The following are a series of short essays that attempt to describe Drew’s ideas as they developed, drawing on his notes from the time and his later writings, as well as speeches and interviews with Drew and his collaborators, and the films themselves. These essays will be in a continual process of evolution, refined and expanded as we work through Drew’s voluminous archive of papers and other artifacts. If you have something to share that would improve this narrative, please email


Robert Drew’s vision of reality filmmaking – first sparked in 1951 when he was a Life magazine correspondent – led a revolution that came to be regarded as American cinéma vérité (or direct cinema).

In a vérité film, real-life drama unfolds before the lens and is edited into a documentary that follows a visual logic. This was a radical departure from what had come before. Documentaries of the day followed what Drew derided as “lecture logic.” They were dull. Most all relied heavily on on-camera correspondents reading scripts, telling viewers what they were watching and what they should think about what they were watching. “Real life never made it onto the screen,” he lamented.

While attempting to put his ideas into action in an early filmmaking venture with Life Magazine photographer Allan Grant titled “Key Picture” (1954), Drew encountered a thicket of technical hurdles. Cameras were so heavy they needed tripods. Audio recording equipment was so bulky and voluminous it couldn’t be moved. Crews often consisted of eight people, overwhelming whatever was happening in front of the lens.

Before he could capture real life as it happened, Drew needed cameras that were light enough to carry and could be synced with audio recorders. He also needed like-minded collaborators who shared his determination to capture the aliveness and surprise of real situations and real people. He wanted to work with others who were driven to make films with small teams that created a direct connection between their films’ subjects and their viewers.

Drew took a year off from his job at Life Magazine to attend Harvard University on a Nieman fellowship and work through the problems. He studied the modern novel and watched a lot of television, searching for the connections that would allow him to capture film subjects as they moved through their lives in an attempt to convey the truth of their experiences.

He found his filmmaking soulmate in Richard Leacock, already an accomplished filmmaker by this time, who had been making films since he was a boy. Drew was entranced with a television program Leacock had shot that aired on Omnibus called “Toby and the Tall Corn” (1954), which gave one the sense of being with the participants as they set up a traveling tent show. Drew and Leacock teamed up to make short films for Time-Life that would promote Life Magazine stories while also giving them experience working together to make films their way. They made films on a college football game, the B-52 bomber, on a scientist who wanted to see if there was water on Mars, on a bullfight. They brought on other filmmakers, including D.A. Pennebaker, who had a background in engineering and a love of candid filming. Pennebaker introduced Albert Maysles to the group and a dream team was formed.

The filmmakers began to envision what they would need equipment-wise to make films their way. Drew transferred from Life Magazine to the Time-Life Broadcast division, which had a capital expense budget to cover the costs of the equipment. Life had a substantial budget and Drew began ordering what was needed. He often laughed as he recalled the first time a vendor asked for a purchase order number. He had no idea what that was, so he gave the guy his extension number at Life — 333. Forevermore, whenever asked for a purchase order number, that was the answer he gave.

Drew commissioned a photo equipment genius in New York, Mitch Bogdanowicz, to re-make a film camera to be portable and quiet. He asked Loren Ryder in Hollywood to develop an editing system that could handle 16mm film with synchronized sound. In notes to his book, Robert Drew and the Development of Cinéma Vérité in America, P.J. O’Connell writes, “An important feature of this equipment development was that almost all the Drew-Leacock-Pennebaker equipment was based on pre-existing equipment — Auricon cameras, Uher and Perfectone recorders, and the watches. By adapting equipment, rather than designing it, Drew and his associates had cut months, probably years, off the development process and saved significant sums of money.”

Whatever the method of obtaining it, with sync sound equipment in their hands, filmmakers could for the first time follow characters as they moved through their lives, capturing their subjects in an attempt to convey the truth of their experiences. A whole new world opened up, a world where vérité was possible.


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