Filmmaker Ken Burns: Bringing the Gift of History

November 7, 2017
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Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns addressed a full house at Brookdale Community College’s
guest speaker event on Oct. 27. Photo courtesy Minh Connors

By John Burton |

LINCROFT — Ken Burns, noted documentary filmmaker of such works as the iconic multipart series “The Civil War” and the recently aired and much-lauded series “The Vietnam War,” believes he is carrying on an age-old tradition, and one that is very much part of who he is.

“I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” Burns said last Friday, as he appeared at Brookdale Community College. “I can do only what’s true to me.”

Burns appeared at the college’s Robert J. Collins Area, before a sold-out crowd on Oct. 27, as part of the college’s continuing guest speaker program, where he discussed his work and life and American history and how they all merged to form the person he is today.

Prompted by questions from Jess Le Vine, a Brookdale history professor, Burns said he was a father of four daughters and, of course, wears many other titles as part of his life. But, he told the large audience, the one he would choose to describe himself is “filmmaker.”

As a boy, Burns remembered, his mother had been gravely ill for a long period before succumbing to cancer. During that difficult time, Burns and his father bonded by watching old movies. The first time he saw his father cry was while watching a movie. And that left a profound impression on the young Burns, realizing the impact that film can have on people.

In college he thought being a moviemaker meant being like Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford. Later, however, he came in contact with noted still photographers and photojournalists whose work stayed with Burns, on some level leading him toward documentaries which coincided nicely with his strong interest in American history.

“The job of a filmmaker is to tell stories,” he noted, explaining how storytellers have been revered members of society going back to the earliest and most primitive cultures, offering both information and entertainment.

Mapping History in Red Bank

Over the course of his 40-year career Burns, first working with his brother Ric and later with Lynn Novick, has been responsible for a series of groundbreaking documentaries that have become staples on Public Broadcasting and used by educators in the classroom. His films tell the stories of such American cornerstones as “Baseball,” “Jazz,” the “Brooklyn Bridge,” “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” “The Dustbowl,” “Prohibition,” “The War,” about World War II and its defining impact on Western Civilization, as well as his transformative “The Civil War.” He treaded into contemporary controversies with “The Central Park Five,” offering an expose on five African-American youths wrongfully convicted for a 1989 rape.

His latest, the 18-hour-long “The Vietnam War,” details the odyssey of that conflict that divided the nation politically and culturally, arguably to this day. Burns and Novick spent 10 years working on that film, often putting the final touches on the work in a converted barn near his home in a small New Hampshire community.

Burns is currently working on films on country music, Ernest Hemingway and on standup comedy.

His films are noted for their interviews with the famous and the common, telling the compelling, often detail-rich stories of their involvement in larger events, or actors reading from letters and volumes of the period to present verbal images to complement the visual ones – used to great effect in “The Civil War.”

Marking much of his work, is the use of music. The music becomes part of the narrative, Burns explained, incorporating it as the film is being put together. This is particularly true for his Vietnam film, he said, with the ‘60s soundtrack playing such an important part of moving the story forward. He was able to secure hard-to-come-by approval to use songs by The Beatles and Bob Dylan, which opened the door to incorporate other titles he may have not otherwise gotten the rights to use, Burns said.

Drummer Returns Without Missing a Beat

“There are no such things as black and white,” he said, and that’s what strikes him as vital to the stories he tells. “There are only shades of gray.”

“There are many, many truths operating in the gray,” he said.

What also resonates with the 64-year-old filmmaker is how history, he said, while not exactly repeating itself, “it rhymes,” according to a quote often attributed to Mark Twain. What that means, Burns explained, is how history recurs in a somewhat reimaged way. He points to the debate on race, the Virginia battle flag – often erroneously called the Confederate flag – and monuments to Confederate leaders that is raging now, 150 years after the Civil War, continuing to divide the nation. Or the recent incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups marched. “We thought World War II did away with that Nazi thing. It didn’t.”

While researching for the Vietnam film, Burns was reintroduced to details about a nation deeply divided, resulting in widespread demonstrations; a White House obsessed with leaks, complaining the national media were misrepresenting officials’ actions and incorrectly reporting their efforts, while looking to put out fires from multiple scandals. “Wow, we are talking about the present” as much as 50 years ago, Burns realized.

“That’s the gift of history,” he offered as a takeaway.

Burns has won 15 Emmy awards and was twice nominated for an Academy Award. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2008 presented Burns with its Lifetime Achievement Award for his nearly four-decade career.

This article was first published in the Nov. 2-9, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.


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