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The 2nd International Documentary Congress: At One with Robert Drew

By Mike Grundmann

Robert Drew, 71, was a World War II fighter pilot who became a Life magazine editor and then formed Drew Associates, a documentary unit that included Richard Leacock and Donn Pennebaker. Their films broke the documentary "lecture" mold by recording only unfolding events and using minimal narration, walking hand­ held cameras, and other devices to keep the experience firsthand for the viewer. Drew's wife, Anne, who started with the company as an editor and has produced with him for 24 years, is now making a verite documentary on the U.S. militia movement. Both were present to screen clips and discuss their experiences during this "At One With ..." session.

Drew told the audience that one of his current projects is a Turner/Audubon special on illegal trade in wild birds, with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. "What everyone expected was that I would hand them a microphone and put them in front of a teleprompter and have them say, 'Hello, we're in the Amazon,' and instead I said, 'I'm not going to tell you what to do and I'm not going to direct you. You're just going to react to what happens. 'So I made a cinema verite film in which the two hosts are characters in the film instead of presenters," he described. "It seemed to be appreciated. I don't know where that sort of thing‘ll lead, but for me it's an experiment."

At Life magazine, he recalled, "We [the photojournalists] would be out in the middle of real life, harvesting pictures and drama, and outside the door of a courthouse would be some [newsreel] guys with a tripod trying to interview people running out the door, saying, 'What happened in the courtroom ?"' This was his inspiration for bringing Richard Leacock into the fold to help develop portable film equipment to capture the moments of real life to which newsreel cinematographers were not getting access.

Drew screened his clip reel 30/15 ("30 years of filmmaking in 15 minutes"), showing everything from Indira Gandhi fighting her way through a crowd to African-American basketball players being routinely frisked upon entering a Los Angeles arena.

"You could just simply say that documentary film has three capabilities," he said. "One is to recall the past. One is to describe the present. Those two are verbal: describe, recall. And a third is to haul you kicking and screaming into real life. That is not word logic, it is filmic logic. It's got to be. And so you need two elements: One is candid photography that's really candid-it doesn't impose on or exact a penalty from what it photographs-and the kind of thinking that can do dramatic editing."

Earlier in the IDC, Marcel Ophuls, winner of the 1995 lDA Career Achievement Award and subject of an evening tribute, condemned observational,  noninterpretive filmmaking as an attempt to record a nonexistent "reality. " Drew, calling Ophuls "masterful" in his studies of "victims and victimizers," said Ophuls’ charge was ironic considering his new film on Sarajevo, The Troubles We've Seen. "What does Marcel Ophuls do when he gets to Sarajevo and he has a real live world-class tragedy going on right outside his window? He picks up the microphone and starts interviewing people about what they think of that or what they saw, and he makes what's firsthand—practically bullet-in­ the-brain firsthand—into second hand, third hand, fourth hand, and winds up critiquing the guys he's interviewing for not conveying the true drama and horror of Sarajevo, while he at the very same time is not even trying to convey the true drama and horror of Sarajevo."

Drew extolled Before Your Eyes, a six-times-yearly primetime CBS series that intimately covers turning points in the lives of Americans. To "disappear," the camera stays distant and moves little, relying on wireless mics and long lenses, and location sound is turned into a "musical" score via computer sampling." ("One Last Chance," an episode that follows a teenage carjacker for a year and a half from arrest to rehabilitation, will air in December.)

"They're absolutely on the cutting edge," Drew said. "It's the kind of breakthrough I haven't seen since Cops.”  Speaking of which: "Cops exists in two worlds for me at the same time. One, it's the furthest extension of reporting reality, without screwing around with it, that I know of. I believe it. And secondly, it's all young black men being bad guys and the cops being good guys, and that's a racial distortion."

When he's interviewed by the networks, "the first question is, 'How do you feel about us? ' And my answer is always, 'I'm really appalled. If I wanted to get something out of you, I wouldn't turn on a light and have ten (crew] people staring at you and so forth. And what's so funny is, they're very cheerful about that. That's what they wanted to hear. They take no responsibility for the travesty there. And it's expensive. I don't care about the money, but they should."

The 2nd International Documentary Congress Special