Exclusive Interview: Filmmaker Ken Burns Wants to ‘Wake the Dead’

Ken Burns Photo credit: Tim Llewellyn Photography

“Our films rely greatly on archives, libraries and the work of many historians and scholars. So I am greatly indebted to all who work in that area, as I am to journalists who write about current events.”- Filmmaker Ken Burns

Documentarian Ken Burns has been making films for over 40 years. In 1981, he directed Academy Award-nominated “Brooklyn Bridge“, exploring the construction, engineering and potent symbol of American culture. His astounding range of subject matter includes Jackie Robinson, The Civil War, jazz, Thomas Jefferson and most recently, The Vietnam War. “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source,” said late historian and biographer Stephen Ambrose.

On Saturday, December 9 at Columbia High School in Maplewood, Burns will take part in Politics, Race & Culture, a sold-out benefit for the Maplewood and South Orange Library Foundations. The evening will feature a discussion between Burns and historian (and South Orange resident) Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad.

Village Green addressed a range of topics with Burns in an email interview, including what inspired his work, trusting his audience, and whether he’ll be creating a documentary about the 2016 presidential campaign anytime soon.

Donny Levit, Village Green: Let’s start out with the power of libraries. “I will be forever indebted to Burns for this production and for reminding me that this is one of the most important reasons we must revisit our past and its documentation, collect it, and ensure that generations to come can learn what we did and how we felt about it.” That’s what Library Journal Editor-at-Large John N. Berry III wrote after seeing your 2017 documentary “The Vietnam War.” Was the idea of “collecting our past” always a conscious goal for you when you were creating your earlier work?

Ken Burns: I appreciate greatly John’s comments and agree with him about the importance of collecting our past but that wasn’t my conscious goal when I started thinking about film, or now. I lost my mother to cancer as a young boy and attribute to that experience my interest in “waking the dead,” as someone once referred to my work years later. My inspiration also came from Jerome Liebling, the great photographer, a friend, and a professor at Hampshire College, where I attended school. The subjects of Jerry’s photographs were alive. They spoke to the power of story — even as still photograph — and helped me better understand how I could mine in history these extraordinary stories. Our films rely greatly on archives, libraries and the work of many historians and scholars. So I am greatly indebted to all who work in that area, as I am to journalists who write about current events.

DL: “Baseball” was the first work of yours that I watched. I remember thinking to myself about how much you really trust your audience. You really believe that viewers can watch something long form and be patient with the immense detail of a story and that they’ll go along for the ride. But I can’t imagine that every producer you’ve worked with was comfortable with the length of your work. Did you ever have to tell a producer or collaborator to trust the viewer?

KB: Thank you for that observation. We completely trust our audience. We trust the public overall and think there’s a huge appetite for thoughtful, in-depth content. Nearly 34 million people watched “The Vietnam War,” a ten-part, 18-hour documentary about an event that took place fifty years ago.

DL: Words such as “facts,” “truth,” and “fake“ are in the news every day. These words are part of our zeitgeist. Does your work as a documentary creator and historian have to change in this environment where facts are questioned?

KB: Our work hasn’t changed because of discussions today about truth and facts. These conversations have always been with us. It is just that the means of dissemination of truths and facts have completely transformed how we receive this information. Understanding that our issues today are not new and unique is very important right now. Beyond the immediate solace that provides, it helps us figure out how to deal with these issues.

DL: Over the last year, I’ve had several conversations that begin with this question: “So when is Ken Burns going to do something on the 2016 Presidential election and this era of Trump?” I have to ask if you have any plans to do so. In addition, do you believe that there needs to be a certain amount of distance from a moment in history before you can explore it? Is there such as a thing as “It’s too soon, it’s too soon” in your approach?

KB: God no. I don’t think I could do it. It is too immediate, too close to home. And yes, we do think a distance is needed. Much of the Vietnam War took place a half a century ago but it still feels so current, for many reasons, and is still open to a wide-range of new scholarship. It took us ten years to make that film but we wanted to start then because many of the people we interviewed were getting up there in age. We wanted to speak with them – and the larger public – while they were still engaged by these issues. While our films, like “The Vietnam War,” come up to the present, they only touch on current events. The perspective of distance and time is hugely valuable.

Burns later added that he, collaborator Lynn Novick, and PBS have launched a digital platform called Unum. Burns explained that the platform “uses history and clips from our films to engage in conversations taking place today.”

The event on December 9 will benefit the Maplewood and South Orange Library Foundations equally. Each library foundation is fundraising to support planned major capital renovations and expansions. The event is also supported by WNYC and DKC Public Relations.

Read Village Green’s most recent stories about planned library improvements here:

$22M Vision for Maplewood Library Is a Wow; Next Comes Fundraising With Ken Burns

South Orange Is Exploring Moving Municipal Offices to Library Building