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Drew Retrospective Airs on Documentary Channel

By Bob Fisher

The Documentary Channel is currently programming a retrospective of eight nonfiction films produced by Drew Associates. The documentaries air at 8:00 p.m. on consecutive Saturdays. The retrospective began March 5 with From Two Men and a War, a relatively new film produced in 2005. It's a story about how Robert Drew crossed paths with legendary journalist Ernie Pyle during World War II and how their friendship influenced his approach to nonfiction storytelling. The other seven films are classic Drew documentaries that have been archived at the Academy Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1997. 

Primary is slated to air March 12. The 1960 documentary follows John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey contending against each other in a Democratic presidential primary election in Wisconsin. Primary marked the dawn of a new age of direct cinema. There were no interviews, lighting or pre-planning. The cinematographers were Albert Maysles and Ricky Leacock. DA Pennebaker recorded sound. They unobtrusively followed the candidates like flies on the wall, using new lightweight 16mm cameras.


From Drew Associates' Primary, which airs March 12 on The Documentary Channel. Courtesy of Drew Associates


The other films in the retrospective are Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (March 19), The Chair (March 26), Petey and Johnny (April 2), Men of Tall Ships (April 9), Herself: Indira Ghandi (April 16) and LA Champions (April 23). The screenings are augmented with discussions with Drew and his wife Anne, who produced many Drew films, including most of the titles in the retrospective. Kate Pearson, director of programming for the Documentary Channel, moderates the discussions, in which the Drews share memories and insights about the film being featured that evening.

Robert Drew was a correspondent and editor at Life Magazine before he formed Drew Associates in 1960. The company has produced more than 50 nonfiction films, including television specials for ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and for syndication on subjects ranging from politics to science, sports, arts and international affairs. Drew was the recipient of the IDA Career Achievement award in 1993.

The Documentary Channel, based in Nashville, was officially launched in 2006, under the leadership of founder Tom Neff. James Ackerman succeeded Neff as president and CEO in 2009. The channel programs air on The Dish Network and DIRECTV 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "I admire and appreciate the passion that goes into the making of documentary films and the view of the world that it gives the public," Ackerman says. "At the risk of sounding like I'm about to step onto a soap box, we live in a world today where traditional journalism has became corporate journalism, which tends to be filtered through a point of view set by a person sitting in a corner office. The independent journalists today are documentarians. They are the ones who are shining light on those things that need to be illuminated; they are the ones who are taking us into worlds that we would not have otherwise have access to and exposing us to the truth."

The Documentary Channel's ventures in restoration began with Neff, and under Ackerman's leadership, the channel decided to make an on-going commitment to the restoration of important documentary works for future generations. "We are working with Michael Pogorzelski and Ed Carter at the Academy," says Ackerman. "They are doing extremely important work. Our head of programming, Kate Pearson, created From the Vault, a monthly series of historic documentary films. We ordered five titles through the Library of Congress and three were corrupted with deteriorating footage and audio. I went to Ed Carter and said, ‘If anybody knows where there are good prints for these films, it's going to be you.' That led to our relationship with the Academy. Our first retrospective was eight documentaries produced by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. It included everything from Pennebaker's first documentary, Daybreak Express, all the way through The War Room, their documentary about President Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign team. The next retrospective that we wanted to do was with Bob and Anne Drew. That is when we learned that the Academy has been working on the restoration of their library for years. We identified two films that the Drews wanted to have as part of the retrospective that were in need of restoration. We agreed to fund that initiative: Herself: Indira Gandhi and Petey and Johnny."


From Drew Associates' Petey and Johnny, which is being restored by the Academy Film Archive, with the support of The Documentary Channel. Courtesy of Richard Leacock


According to Robert Drew, prior to the Academy coming to his rescue, he stored his work the old-fashioned way: "We filled a two-car garage next to our house with racks and kept them there, but we were looking for a places to keep it safely, in case our house and the garage burned down. In 1997, the Academy offered to archive our films and we accepted. They sent a huge trailer truck and drove our films across the United States to the Academy archives in Los Angeles. It was a very exciting experience--sort of like the day that your youngest child leaves home. We had been wondering what the future held for the films in our garage archive. Ed Carter was one of the people who came from the Archive to inspect our films; he would open a can and sniff the film. Depending upon how much vinegar he smelled, he would say, ‘We have to work on this one quickly,' or, ‘This one is OK.'"

"We didn't have a complete set of A and B rolls of the film that we did with President Kennedy," Anne Drew recalls. "The archivists at the Academy found the fine grain copies that were made from the A and B rolls. They used them to make a new printing element. They are now working on Herself: Indira Gandhi, the film I made about the prime minister of India. They have saved our films for future generations in ways we could have never anticipated."

As far as the programmatic decision of whittling down the Drew canon to eight films, Ackerman explains that he and his team "wanted the retrospective to span the multiple decades of their work, and weave their story into the context with the interviews done by Kate. I saw Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment years ago. I was absolutely amazed that cameras were allowed into the White House and the Attorney General's office as they were going through the stand-off with Governor Wallace in Alabama. One of the things I learned is, that happened because President Kennedy was fascinated by the work Robert Drew did on Primary."


From Drew Associates' Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, which airs March 19 on The Documentary Channel. Courtesy of Drew Associates


Academy Film Archive Director Michael Pogorzelski says that the restoration and archiving of classic documentaries produced by the Drews and many others has been an ongoing process to assure that these "priceless stories" are available for future generations. More than 11,000 documentaries are archived by the Academy. "We are very grateful to the Documentary Channel for its generous support of this effort," Pogorzelski says. "We look forward to working with them on future retrospectives."

Bob Fisher has been writing about documentary and narrative filmmaking for nearly 40 years, mainly focusing on cinematography and film preservation.