Documentarian Paved the Way For Cinéma Vérité

Robert Drew, the man who altered both journalism and filmmaking when he helped develop the hand-held camera and a synchronized sound recorder and put the new equipment to use making documentaries in the style known as cinéma vérité, died July 30 at his home in Sharon, Conn. He was 90.

The cause was sepsis, said his daughter, Lisa Drew.

Cinéma vérité, also known as direct cinema – a scriptless, actorless form of storytelling in which a camera reveals what purports to be a spontaneous, ongoing reality without an accompanying narration – has become familiar not only through documentaries but also feature films and reality television.

But in the mid-1950s, storytelling films were largely the province of Hollywood, and documentary footage was primarily used in news reports. At the time, while Mr. Drew was a writer and editor at Life magazine, he spent a year at Harvard University, where he pursued an interest in television and new methods of creating a visual narrative. “I focused on two questions: Why are documentaries so dull? What would it take for them to become gripping and exciting?” he wrote in a 2001 essay.

His answers were that documentaries were been little more than lectures, and that television had the ability to draw audiences into dramatic stories with an immediacy it had yet to exploit.

The new form he envisioned, he recalled in a 1962 interview, “would be plays without playwrights; it would be reporting without summary and opinion; it would be the ability to look in on people’s lives at crucial times from which you could deduce certain things and see a kind of truth that can only be gotten by personal experience.”

Check out the rest of Drew’s philosophic ideas that helped pave the way for modern cinema on The Globe and Mail.