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Robert Drew, cinéma vérité pioneer, dies at 90

In an award-filled career that spanned five decades, he schooled a generation of influential directors

Filmmaker Robert Drew, a pioneer of the modern documentary who in "Primary" and other movies mastered the intimate, spontaneous style known as cinema vérité and schooled a generation of influential directors that included D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles during a career than spanned five decades, has died at age 90.

His son Thatcher Drew confirmed he died Wednesday at his home in Sharon, Connecticut.

Starting in 1960 with "Primary," Drew produced and sometimes directed a series of television documentaries that took advantage of such innovations as light hand-held cameras that recorded sound and pictures. Directors could work more like journalists, following their subjects for hours and days at a time and capturing revealing moments.

According to Variety, his films “pioneered a strict journalistic code that allowed no directing of subjects.” His honors included a 1954-55 Nieman Fellowship for journalists at Harvard University as well as the Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Prize, blue ribbons from the New York Film festival, first prizes at the Venice Film Festival, and the Dupont-Columbia Best Documentary award.

"Modern art has Picasso. Rock-n-roll has Bill Haley. And the documentary film has Robert Drew," filmmaker Michael Moore said Wednesday. "All of us who make nonfiction movies can trace our lineage to what he created."

Drew's dozens of films included "The Chair," a 1963 documentary about a death penalty case in Illinois, and "784 Days That Changed America: From Watergate to Resignation," winner in 1982 of a Peabody award. Many of his movies were edited and co-produced by his wife, Anne Drew, who died in 2012.

While a photographer and editor with Life, Drew formed Drew Associates in 1960 with the goal of applying his magazine experience to films. Among those joining him were such future directors as Pennebaker ("Don't Look Back," `'The War Room") and Maysles (who with brother David made "Gimme Shelter" and "Grey Gardens").

Their approach, called cinema vérité, or direct cinema, also was used in feature films, by directors John Cassavetes, Louis Malle and Agnes Varda. The new style led to fierce and enduring debates about truth in movies, whether a fly-on-the-wall approach was any more objective than a narrative with a point of view worked out in advance.

Frederick Wiseman, another award-winning documentary maker, would call cinema vérité "just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning."

Drew's "Primary" is widely ranked among the most important political documentaries and in 1990 was entered into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry for historic works. It follows presidential candidates and fellow Democrats Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Sen. John F. Kennedy as they campaigned in Wisconsin for their party's nomination, which Kennedy eventually received.

In 1963, Drew and associates made "Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment," about the showdown between the Kennedy administration and Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who was resisting a court order to integrate the University of Alabama. The filmmakers were permitted remarkable access — from the White House to the office of Attorney General Robert Kennedy to the Alabama university campus, where a defiant Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door, to inside Wallace's car as he warned that the next presidential election would be decided in the South.

The public wasn't used to seeing a sitting president filmed on the job, and some reviews criticized Drew for turning the White House into a movie set.

Drew was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1924, and at age 19 joined the Army Air Forces, flying 31 missions in Italy and surviving being shot down in Germany. While overseas, he would be deeply impressed by the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, whose detailed reporting shaped Drew's filmmaking.

Drew's documentaries covered many subjects but he had a special fondness for Kennedy.  "He forgot about us so completely that at one point he was talking about joint maneuvers off Cuba," Drew said in material on "The country hadn't gone into Cuba yet. A general who was there had to remind him there was a camera in the room shooting. He looked at me and grinned. I grinned back, and we walked out."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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