Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Ken Burns at BYU

I attended the BYU Forum address (and the following Q&A session) by famed documentarian Ken Burns yesterday. He exceeded every expectation. BYU was not, unfortunately, able to broadcast the forum because Burns showed clips from an upcoming documentary on WWII that will not be released until this fall. I'm bummed, because I was hoping to link to some video clips of the event here. Maybe in September.

He told us how he had actively resisted efforts over the years to get him to do another war documentary after the smashing success of his Civil War film. He talked to us about the emotional difficulty of spending years involved in the study of something so terrible as war. But he finally felt compelled to approach this topic because he recognized that it would be criminal to let the thousands of veterans die before their story could be told.

In the Q&A session, Burns clarified his point a bit. It wasn't that there were not enough documentaries on WWII. He seemed to indicate a distaste for the History Channel's approach to the war. Too many swastikas everywhere you turned and not enough of the human story of the war. Burns set out to make a "bottom up" documentary that focused on the lives of the people rather than the affairs of the generals and presidents.

Burns claimed that WWII was not "the good war" but "the necessary war."

This is the point that seems to escape so many people who oppose our contemporary military conflicts. They see war not as a necessary evil, but as an absolute evil. In my view, war is a yucky, horrible thing. I look forward to the reign of the Prince of Peace when all war will end. But until that time comes, it simply will not do to allow evil men to rampage unmolested simply because we demand "peace." Peace at any price is not peace, but prison.

Burns told us that there is a sizable portion of the graduating high school seniors in our country that believe that we fought in WWII alongside the Germans against the Soviets. Many people are going to see films like "Saving Private Ryan" and are feeling the powerful emotion of the event without understanding the greater significance. Why were they landing on that beach? What was the strategy? What were the goals? Did it work?

He acknowledged that it is impossible to tell a story without any bias. He hopes that as he tells a story that he paints a fair picture that conveys the emotion he feels about the subject. I can tell you that the clips of the documentary that he showed certainly conveyed powerful emotions. It will be interesting to see how he lives up to his stated goal of also placing the events in the larger picture while being true to his bottom-up approach.

One person raised the question during the Q&A session about the exclusion of Latinos in the upcoming documentary. The question was asked in respect and Burns responded in kind. He didn't duck the issue at all, but provided a very compelling answer that I probably can't do justice in summary. In essence, he explained that he was trying to tell individual stories rather than provide a "phone book" treatment of the war. They chose, essentially at random, four cities and put out the call to veterans. They didn't seek out individuals, but put out the word that they were in town and took all comers. They did hundreds of on-camera interviews, only a fraction of which could be used in the film. They obviously couldn't use footage of people who didn't show up. He pointed out that other important segments were also underrepresented in the film, like sailors, submariners, and so forth. He decided that he must be doing a good job if he can make a 14 hour movie and still get complaints it isn't long enough. :)

Interestingly, there are about 100 other documentaries in production that are meant to springboard off the release of Burns's film. They will be aired in local markets and focus on the local population of WWII veterans. In this aspect, it looks like the film will succeed in creating a lot of dialog rather than being a soliloquy. Burns also hopes these other, local films will help fill in the gaps in coverage that people have already noted about his upcoming film.

I hope that you will watch the new documentary when it comes out on PBS this fall. In the meantime, you might check out two podcasts from the San Francisco Chronicle which feature an interview with Burns. I haven't listened to them myself yet, but they are now on my list!


Anonymous said...

Here's another podcast interview with Ken Burns from Wisconsin Public Television where he discusses a number of the issues you write about, including the Hispanic controversy:
Ken Burns interview podcast

Keryn said...

I have to close the comments on this post because of comment spam. If you have something you'd like to add, feel free to email me, I'll add it.