Coinciding with the emergence of the New York new wave and cinéma vérité in France, the American and Canadian Direct Cinema group of filmmakers lead a revolutionary breakthrough in documentary film practice beginning in the late 1950s. The phrase “Direct Cinema” was first coined to describe a form of “fly-on-the-wall” filmmaking that sought to directly capture reality and represent it truthfully without recourse to professional lighting, interviews and authoritative voice-over. The breakthrough was made possible, in part, by the development of light, portable cameras allowing filmmakers a more intimate relationship with their subjects. The development of new sound recording equipment was another key innovation, enabling, for the first time, real-time sync recording of sound and picture.
Direct Cinema began in the United States when Robert Drew, a journalist and editor with Life magazine, sought a way to apply photojournalistic methods to moving films that could be shown on television. Impressed by a film about a travelling tent theatre in the Midwest called, Toby and the Tall Corn, that made him feel like he was really there, he contacted its maker, Richard Leacock, with a proposal to collaborate. Leacock agreed and together with a group of other skilled and like-minded filmmakers – D.A. Pennebaker, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and Albert and David Maysles –he formed Drew Associates. Time-Life put one million dollars into the invention of a lighter camera that could shoot hand-held without a tripod, allowing the operator more mobility and intimacy in the filmmaking. The Direct Cinema filmmakers wanted to show how things really are, rather than how they might appear to be. The success of such an approach relied on an agreement between the subject and the filmmaker that the subject would act as if the camera were not there.
Drew Associates’ first film Primary (1960) was a gripping account of the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary campaign between Senators John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey. Its raw but revealing style helped define and raise the profile of Direct Cinema when it was broadcast on television. Drew filmed Kennedy again after he became President for a film called Crisis which covered events surrounding Alabama Governor George Wallace’s decision to oppose integration at the University of Alabama. As the decade went on the Direct Cinema filmmakers, and those who shared their approach, moved onto other subject matter, inventing the modern Rock documentary with films such as Don’t Look Back (1967), Monterey Pop (1968), and Gimme Shelter (1970), uncovering institutional injustice in Titicut Follies (1967), and observing the life of the ordinary working man in Salesman (1969).
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