Alumni Profilesspring2006

A Documentarian in the Murrow Mold

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Robert Richter at Tiananmen Square in Beijing shooting Eating the Scorpion, a documentary on American teachers in China.


The Last Atomic Bomb, the most recent work by prolific documentary filmmaker Robert Richter ’51, profiles a Nagasaki survivor who has spent her life telling the story of the city’s destruction. The film explores the connections between her story and today’s nuclear proliferation issues.

Richter’s plan is to distribute the film overseas in Japan and other Asian countries, as well as in Europe, and to show it on high school and college campuses, and to churches and community groups, in the United States. A third of the production budget came from HBO, and Richter is working on preparing a telecast for HBO to air in the United States in fall 2007.

Richter has been an independent filmmaker since 1968 (check out his work at He has made about 50 films, including a biography of Dr. Benjamin Spock, an exposé about the sale and distribution of harmful pesticides (its screening led to the establishment of an international monitoring system), and a portrait of post-war Vietnam (Richter was the first American filmmaker allowed into the country after the war). His awards include three DuPonts and three Academy Award nominations.

It all started in 1954, when Richter was a graduate student in the University of Iowa Writing Program. “Watching the Edward R. Murrow documentary about Senator Joseph McCarthy was a turning point in my life,” Richter says. “I saw how powerful it was in helping to bring down McCarthy. I can still see the room I was in, the chair I was sitting on—I was sitting on it backwards, leaning with my chest against the back of it. It was a riveting thing. I set my target right there: I wanted to work for Murrow. Nine years later, I was doing it. And now I’m the last producer from the unit [CBS Reports] still making films.”

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Richter’s new work-in-progress is a series called How Others See Us, about how the United States—through its foreign policy and cultural impact— is perceived in other countries. And he isn’t afraid to genre-bend: He’s also written three screenplays. One of them, In Search of the Dawn Redwoods, he describes as “an Indiana Jones-type adventure, based on a true story about a paleobotanist’s quest for a species of life extinct for ten thousand years.”

Richter has harbored a long-time dream of making a film with Walter Cronkite about the lives of Nobel Peace Prize winners, but financial backing has been elusive. “When we took the idea to the History Channel, they said it wouldn’t appeal to their 18-45 target audience,” he says. “That’s pretty appalling.”

These days the quest for funding is paramount. “Twenty years ago I was complaining to the New York Times that I had to spend 25 percent of my time raising money,” he says. “Now I spend 25 percent making films.”

Even so, he doesn’t consider his life’s work a business. “It’s a calling,” he says. “When college students say to me, ‘I’m thinking about making documentaries,’ I always tell them, ‘if you’re only thinking, it’s not for you. ‘

It’s like the priesthood. These are important subjects and the hope is that you can change minds and motivate people.” ­

—Rebecca Koffman