March 1, 2001

Playback: Drew Associates’ 'Primary'

When I was a college student in the early ‘60s and first discovering feature films, documentaries meant next to nothing to me. I connected them with the stodgy industrial films I saw in grade school—the ones about plastic or progress, the booming voice of the narrator intoning, “Since the Dawn of Civilization…”

Then I saw Primary. That a documentary could have such immediacy and raw energy dazzled me. I haven't seen Primary in over 30 years, but I can imagine (if memory serves me right) Senator Kennedy making his way to a speaker's platform, the camera tracking from behind held high above his head. And I remember feeling I could reach out and touch him, that I was there, jostling through the crowd myself. I marveled at a camera moving so freely it could become the extension of the body and eye of the filmmaker.

As I watched the film unfold, the images seemed transparent, as if they were bits of clear glass filtering the light without any distortion. There was a kind of naïve innocence back then when cinéma vérité was being invented. In the early ‘60s, "truth at 24 frames a second" was more than a slogan; it was a manifesto. Now images are manipulated and manipulate us so regularly that, in their wild proliferation, they often seem to overwhelm reality itself. The age of innocence for documentaries is over.

But Primary made me believe that the camera could go out into the world and try to see things as they were. When I first started working in film, I didn't apprentice as a researcher or an associate producer. Never even considered becoming a writer. I began as an assistant cameraman, hoping to train my eye to see. While these days I am often making historical documentaries that call for a more formal style, the camera locked down on a tripod much like it was before the invention of the handheld sound camera, what I learned 30 years ago stays with me: an image can bear witness. And every time I have a chance to put a camera on my shoulder, I'm filled with the sense of innocence and adventure I experienced when I first saw Primary.

 

David Grubin is a producer, director, writer and cinematographer, whose films include LBJ, FDR, Truman, TR: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt, Napoleon and Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided. His prizes include two George Foster Peabody awards, two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University awards, eight Emmys and an IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement award.

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