Moments before Robert Drew picked up the phone my heart was pounding in my mouth like a school boy about to meet his idol.
Our memories hopelessly wane, respect for giants diminishes, and the yesteryears of titanic achievements decompose into unknowns, but I was going to be speaking to Robert Drew. The great Robert Drew to which society and journalism owes a huge debt of gratitude changed the face of storytelling and journalism. That much too was codified into a talk to one of London’s youngest dynamic Guilds in Entrepreneurialism ( photo above).
If you watch a piece of journalism and you become immersed in its form, particularly when the camera goes mobile off the tripod, and the film tells a story, or part of it, without narration, that was Robert Drew and friends who bequeathed that to the industry.
Much has been written about the form in books, magazines and the rest, but I had a hunch, a hunch long before talking to Mr Drew. One that gives shape to an emerging, perhaps, revitalised future of journalism.
Firstly, some quick facts to get out of the way which may dent a hole in your knowledge. You may know Robert Drew as a pioneer of documentary practice, but Drew set out to change journalism. However, the journalism industry firstly didn’t understand him and then arrogantly disregarded his views. “They’ve taken my equipment and my techniques but applied them in ways that don’t work…”, he said of journalism in the interview below. The French gave Drew sanctuary for his iminicable talents.
His accomplishment? With $1m from Life Magazine, Drew minaturaised standard news cameras to become mobile and for the first time ever brought together sound to synch with film visuals. But the coup was realising a creative filmmaking stream used to great effect on the documentary Primary featuring a soon-to-be 35th president of the United States, J.F. Kennedy.
I had more than twenty years in the Industry, was one of the first official videojournalists in the UK, had occupied a spectrum of positions in front and behind the camera and had won international awards for innovative journalism against giants in the US. Something didn’t quite fit when I began to study storyform in journalism.
It’s difficult to get this, because like the air you breath, perhaps you’ve never known anything different. You’ve also been told by a powerful news lobby how things work. But here goes, journalism filmmaking, as undoubtedly a brilliant piece of narrative engineering when it was conceived for television in the 1950s also hid the greatest conceit. That conceit, analogous to the Fordisation of the automobile industry was that there was only one formal accepted way of journalism storytelling. It worked because the two main architects in the UK and US borrowed heavily from one another. They then exported their model to the rest of the world.
Drew saw the conceit and exposed it, but he was an outsider and the industry’s concept of journalism wrapped up as news, (a conceptual form based around Western values), had become a golden goose. Businessmen and women were not about to kill the goose laying them eggs, lots of golden ones.
That the news industry would take Drew’s ideas, but never fully credit him was proof of the journalism industry’s limitations and hypocrisy.
In the 1990s when I worked as a videojournalist, something began to happen, which only made sense a decade later. Because we were autonomous, several videojournalists started to make their films look like cinema. The viewers loved it. Management didn’t much mind either, for a while. I came across several international names using cinema and over a six year PhD I gathered more evidence, enough to write two volumes of a book.
I am a cinema journalist. It’s an interpretive mindset for narrative. It is a factual storytelling process which is agnostic of tools and platforms. I use equipment e.g. mobile, drones, DLR in the same way a fictional film director uses her tools.
If you’re familiar with the affect of the industrial revolution, then this thing I call cinema journalism is about to become hugely popular and the way we practise news journalism is about to undergo a major shift. Drew knew that as well.
Follow Dr David Dunkley Gyimah at @viewmagazine