The Cinema-Truth of PRIMARY

The 1950s and 1960s were political and aesthetic eras of radical reimagination, and both politics and aesthetics were unassumingly upended with the release of Robert Drew’s Primary (1960). Primary is an hour-long “direct cinema” documentary about the battle for the Wisconsin Democratic primary between Hubert Humphrey and winner John F. Kennedy. The film documents the candidates on their campaign stops, their speeches at publicized events, their glad-handing with voters, their travels, and, eventually, the day of the election and each candidate’s experience throughout the night waiting for the result. It is a major film that documents the confluence of politics and aesthetics as well as being an object of newly imagined politics and aesthetics itself in the history of documentary filmmaking.

In Making Waves: The New Cinemas of the 1960s, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith writes that “the revolution in documentary film was more sudden and in many ways more radical than in any other kind of cinema”.[1] Documentary film – and the general recording of real-life events – has existed since the advent of cinema, and its most popular forms were newsreels that played as part of programs for feature films. The advent of another medium – television – perpetuated the informative but inartful mode of documentary filmmaking; Nowell-Smith writes, “Liberal non-commercial television regimes, such as those prevailing in Britain, Canada, and West Germany, gave some space in the 1950s to experiment with documentary form, but what was alive and living in television was on the whole functional journalism, often hard-hitting, but aesthetically rarely adventurous and politically always within the consensus, even if sometimes towards the edge of it.”[2]

In France, however, documentary filmmaking evolved differently in part due to the French government banning double-feature programs because of a shortage of feature films being produced. In the place of another feature, documentary and other experimentative short films by innovators such as Alain Resnais and Chris Marker were shown instead, leading to the experimentation with documentary form: “[It] was an outlet of a kind and there was a general recognition that the short film, fiction or non-fiction, was a legitimate part of the cinema.”[3] This experimentation, then, lead to the formation of a new type of documentary filmmaking known as cinema verité which – in addition to its technological innovations of primarily using 16mm film stock, lightweight handheld cameras, and compact microphones which allowed for synchronized sound – depicted its own interrogation of what qualified as “truth” in filming events purported to be genuine.

Cinema verité of the theoretical sort practiced by filmmakers like Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin has had a contentious reputation. Peter Graham, writing in Film Quarterly, writes that the reason for this is that “no one ever took the trouble to define what was meant by the term, which was thus taken to cover many divergent methods and ideologies.”[4] What Graham admonishes in this type of cinema verité film is its slavishness to “objectivity”. Graham writes of preferring filmmakers like Drew (citing Primary), Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles (both of whom shot Primary), and Chris Marker for their definite stance and molding of the “reality” of that which they film: “These filmmakers present not the truth, but their truth. The term cinema verité, by postulating some absolute truth, is only a monumental red-herring. The sooner it is buried and forgotten, the better.”[5]

Cinema verité has not been forgotten, and its influence is still present today, but Graham’s reservations played out in how other filmmakers such as Robert Drew took what was new from the French filmmakers and turned it into something else. Nowell-Smith summarizes the collaboration between Drew and Leacock in the lead up to making Primary: Leacock, a former combat photographer, met with Drew, a photojournalist for Time-Life, and the two convinced the organization in developing new filmmaking technology: “The eventual result was the Auricon Filmagnetic, a shoulder-mounted combined camera and recorder, a bit heavy but serviceable.”[6] Primary, then, was broadcast on ABC, which obviously brings up its own questions regarding the authenticity and position towards what is shown:

Direct cinema in the United States thus soon found itself embroiled in the politics of broadcasting, with the issue further complicated by the sometimes extravagant truth claims made for the new film-making mode when the term cinema verité was borrowed from France to describe it. Now that the more extravagant claims are no longer made, it is possible to return to seeing American direct cinema more specifically as a form of journalism […] The close-to-camera shooting and the synch dialogue gave the new form an immediacy which neither traditional film documentary nor an author’s prose could match.[7]

This unassuming yet stark immediacy is what defines the cinematic value of a direct cinema film like Primary, which although its subjects are two mainstream politicians and it aired on broadcast television, avant-garde enthusiast Jonas Mekas recognized its importance with a year-end independent film award in his Film Comment magazine in 1961. A quiet sequence of people voting, only their feet shown under the voting booths, with newsreel audio on the soundtrack evokes the tense solitude of voting. Drew gets different people’s testimonials, most of which invoke Kennedy’s controversial Catholicism, some voting for him because of it and others for Humphrey. One richly stylized compositional choice shows Humphrey placed below a towering state monument, schmoozing to voters as he is rendered secondary to an emblem of power he is trying to acquire. The film begins and ends with Humphrey embarking on his campaign bus, at the start the campaign song is hopeful and at the film’s end bitterly ironic, and in a film full of faces and bodies these spare outdoor images achieve a discomforting effect.

One central sequence of Kennedy walking through a crowd of supporters on the main floor of a campaign event to reach the stage and deliver a speech is crucial and embodies the political and aesthetic significance of Primary. Drew films this energetic event in one take behind Kennedy as he splits the mass of adoring and blushes faces of his supporters. Seeing one man, who would win this primary and eventually the presidency, receive this level of adoration from so many people is an overwhelming visual that confirms the storied magnetism and presence Kennedy had on the national stage. Watching it, it feels as if history, in all its authentic power, is being confirmed for us as well as for those faces onscreen. Primary realizes the designation of Kennedy as the “first television president”, and Drew and his collaborators do what Graham heralds them for, which is importing the objective truth of that which they film with their personal truth as artists. Finally, Primary is a landmark of its kind and elucidates the aesthetic and political nature of cinema verité filmmaking and the cultural and technological factors that lead to its making and release.


[1] G. Nowell-Smith, Making Waves: The New Cinemas of the 1960s. Bloomsbury Academic. 2013. P. 82.

[2] G. Nowell-Smith, P. 82-83.

[3] G. Nowell-Smith, P. 83.

[4] P. Graham, “Cinema Verité in France” in Film Quarterly Vol. 17 No. 4. University of California Press. 1964. P. 30.

[5] P. Graham, P. 36.

[6] G. Nowell-Smith, P.87.

[7] G. Nowell-Smith, P. 88.