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This We Know Is Drew: A Box Set of American Vérité

By Ron Sutton

"The idea was simple and big. Capturing drama in real life could allow viewers to experience other worlds with their own senses. Carrying out that idea is taking more than a lifetime."

This reflection from documentary pioneer Robert Drew kicks off a 48-page booklet that accompanies the release of a 10-DVD boxed set of the work of his filmmaking conglomerate, Drew Associates, from 1960 to 2008. The collection, Robert Drew: Ten Masterworks of American Cinema Vérité, is of excellent quality, having been digitally mastered from the original films preserved at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Archive. New Video, a subdivision of Cinedigm, manufactured the DVDs, but Drew Associates is now the distributor.

Drew authored the booklet—titled Ten Masterworks in Reality Filmmaking—and he gives credit on the cover to his legendary collaborators: Richard Leacock, DA Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, Gregory Shuker, Terence Filgate, Hope Ryden, James Lipscomb, Mike Jackson, Abbot Mills and Anne Drew.

Drew frames the collection as a primer, of sorts, for filmmakers, film students and film educators alike, tracing the genesis, development and ongoing impact of the cinema vérité art form and deconstructing the craftsmanship that went into each of the works in the collection. 

Drew's background as a reporter and photojournalist for Life magazine informed his approach to documentary filmmaking. He sought to tell stories with "picture logic," rather than "word logic." 

The films in the collection demonstrate how Drew Associates went about creating these works. They would study a situation or incident about to happen. Then, instead of writing a script, or directing the people involved as actors, they would gain access to the actual persons and places involved. Armed with their subject's permission and trust, they would capture as unobtrusively as possible what was happening. They would use only as much narration as was necessary to understand the situation. The herculean task of editing was of course crucial to reporting the story. Drew and his team tried to make the story reflect the true situation, rather than their  interpretation of it. 

Subsequent vérité filmmakers often followed in this same vein. Others departed from that principle, using camera angles, close-ups or long shots, music, editing and pacing to present quite subjective opinions.

The collection kicks off with the 1960 film Primary, a historic breakthrough event for cinema vérité in America. This DVD also includes a nine-minute documentary featuring interviews with Drew and other luminaries discussing how this film was produced.  

It was Drew, Leacock, Pennebaker, Mayles and Filgate who successfully developed and employed the new equipment that this unique style of storytelling demanded. It was lightweight, portable and versatile, and most of all, it allowed for an unprecedented access that is so crucial to documentary filmmaking today. And we the viewers were the beneficiaries of an entree into the lives of two consequential public figures—John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey—as they campaign, strategize and face one another in the Wisconsin primary for the US Presidency. Kennedy himself was so impressed with what the Drew Associates team had delivered that upon winning the presidency, he invited them to document his days in the White House-something no other president had done. The resulting films—Adventures on the New Frontier,and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment—afforded the American people an intimate view of their leader at work, grappling with the most complicated issues of the day. A fourth film, Faces of November, captures the solemnity and sorrow of one of the most epochal events of the late twentieth century, one whose 50th anniversary will be commemorated this fall: President Kennedy's assassination. Although the latter three films are not in the collection, Drew does include his 2008 film A President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy, which includes excerpts from those films, as well as other archival footage.

The other films in Robert Drew: Ten Masterworks of American Cinema Vérité cover a wide range of subjects: football, auto racing, capital punishment, a piano competition, commercial, theater, drug addiction and dance. We meet such celebrities as Jane Fonda and Edward Villella at the very dawn of their careers, and thanks to the filmmakers, we feel the intensity of focus during rehearsal, and the anticipation and the nervousness backstage just before the curtain rises on opening night. And we also meet ordinary folks like TWA pilot Harold F. Blackburn as he makes his final roundtrip flight, from New York to Rome, on the day he faces forced retirement, and attorney Louis Nizer as he fights to save his client, inmate Paul Crump, from execution. And we meet a young husband and wife from Queens, New York, who are both struggling with the ravages of heroin addiction.

These films are about the pain and joy and poetry of being human, and they are a testament to the patience, sensitivity and respect that the great filmmakers at Drew Associates paid to their subjects. Today's documentary community, as well as the next generation, would benefit greatly from what this collection has to offer.

To order Robert Drew: Ten Masterworks of American Cinema Vérité, go to

Ron Sutton is professor emeritus in the Visual Media Department of the School of Communication at American University.