Film festival on WFYI Ken Burns has been wedding viewers to their televisions for two decades and the honeymoon remains intact. Love of history is the uniting element. "My work is to try to communicate the complexity of human life as it is, as it was," Burns comments during a telephone conversation on Sept. 5.
Ken Burns was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1953. He graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., in 1975 and went on to be one of the co-founders of Florentine Films. His work, for which he alternately or aggregately serves as producer, director, writer, cinematographer and music director, garners the most viewers of any other documentary maker, and has won over 100 major awards. He resides in Walpole, N.H.
With events of Sept. 11 raw and vivid, Burns speaks of how most human experience is bittersweet. "Sept. 11, 2001, provided unintended consequences. It resulted in an incredible sense of togetherness, while some best intentions have led to not so good experiences." He doesn"t elaborate. "Not only documentary filmmakers, but journalists, teachers, et cetera, need to make the encounter with history exciting, personal, interactive. "Knowing our past, having an awareness of where we"ve been, makes you better prepared for now and the future - helps you prepare for the losses." Burns" landmark epic documentary, The Civil War, exemplifies this point. "The Civil War was the greatest event in American history - where, paradoxically, in order to become one, we had to tear ourselves in two," he says. "Before the war, in speaking about our country, we said, "The United States are" - plural. We saw ourselves as a union, a stitched-together collection of states, a "many" thing. After the war - though we ended slavery, we didn"t really end the question of race that has bedeviled and ennobled our struggle - we then, after the war, began to talk about America as a "one" thing, as a nation. And we began to say something that is still to this day ungrammatical: We say, "The United States is." And that is ungrammatical. It would be like saying, "These shoes is." "And we say it without thinking about it because something happened in those four years between 1861 and 1865, that, for whatever reasons it happened and for whatever consequences issued from it, formed this country in a way that not even the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution did. And so, in the end, the story of the Civil War is the story of the change of a simple verb from a plural to a singular." Once again, just when we, as a nation, are seeking for the best way to speak of ourselves, to sort through the story of Sept. 11, The Civil War becomes a primer. Sept. 22-26, at 8 p.m., WFYI Public Television is airing a digitally re-mastered version of the multi-award-winning documentary that was watched by 40 million people when it premiered in 1990. And while the technology will afford sharper images and a full stereo track, thus becoming visually and aurally even more exciting, it is the documentary"s central theme that ultimately draws us to clear the calendar and tune in: "Between 1861 and 1865, Americans made war on each other and killed each other in order to become the kind of country that could no longer conceive how that was possible." From that time forward, citizens of the United States have evolved to believe their nation is invulnerable, an island safe from outside destruction, a people beloved because we are well-meaning. Thus, because of year-old events that inalterably shattered that complacency, this second time around of The Civil War brings fresh vision to what Burns says "has always been and will always be the central subject in American history." Of his nearly 20 documentaries and films, The Civil War is what Burns seems to allude to as the pinnacle of his lauded career. Its strength, he believes, "is the fact that we focused on telling a story, not just history from the top down, but from the bottom up. So it was as important for us to have our audience and ourselves get to know the Northern grunt Elishah Hunt Rhodes or the Southern soldier Sam Watkins, as well as it was critical to know what was going on in the mind of Jefferson Davis or Abraham Lincoln and the myriad generals, North and South, that made the war go and happen and turn out the way it did. "But at the end of the day, when you consider the important figures, one cannot help but be inexorably drawn to that extraordinary poet-president who saved the union, Abraham Lincoln: this unlikely, essentially lower-middle-class guy from the frontier, who had raised himself up and was able to not just articulate what was going on in the moment, but to gather together all the impulses of the past and to see into the possibilities of our future, and to do so without a lot of fuss. And to do so with a great deal of poetry, in the way he spoke about the war and about the struggle. And help to, I think, remake our country, helped to reshape and give new purpose to ideas that had perhaps become corrupted since the founding of the nation. And he gave us this impulse, this new start. "He called it, in the Gettysburg Address, "a new birth of freedom," and I think we still are the beneficiaries of it today. Abraham Lincoln was able to articulate and help to put into practice the manifestations of democracy and freedom in a society for all people. "I don"t know how one could not be curious about how the country ticks and not be hugely influenced by Sept. 11. I was initially devastated, thought that perhaps I was in the wrong business and that maybe I should focus on something more tangible. And it was only in the months after Sept. 11, as I sought to promote the Mark Twain film and remembered how much suffering he had had to deal with, and how funny he had to be in the face of that suffering, that I realized what an important agent the past is in getting through the present and describing the kind of future that we want." In making his documentaries, Burns does not wish for specific action on the part of his viewers, but he does hope something happens. His intention is "to permit individuals to shape their own response. Buy a book, visit a site, find out more about their own ancestors. Not a day goes by without getting letters," Burns adds. "Critics lamented how much people don"t express themselves in writing. I"ve been stunned at the tremendous courtesy and grace of the letters. People do have the ability to write a letter worth keeping." Burns acknowledges his responsibility to "revisit signal moments in American history that I felt, as I was growing up, were important to talk about. Like the Brooklyn Bridge, like the Shakers, like Huey Long, more recent things on Thomas Jefferson and Frank Lloyd Wright, and to share them again, and look at them with, perhaps, a fresh perspective. "I"m not interested in a sanitized, Madison Avenue version of the past. I"m interested in producing films that take a hard, honest look at our past, that are unafraid of controversy and tragedy. But I"m equally drawn to those stories and moments that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit, and particularly the unique role this remarkable republic seems to have in the positive progress of mankind. That"s my credo, and that"s what I will try to give my best to in the future." Burns says he would remind young people sour on America that it"s the prerogative of youth to be sour, but he also challenges young people to expose flaws when those of advanced age are content to allow such flaws to go uncorrected. "Yet there are at least as many pluses as minuses." To make an accurate assessment of this nation, we have to balance things out. "We go through school not liking history. It"s important for us to know the past. I want to remind everyone history is a great pageant preparing us for the present and the future. We must be vigilant; engage in active and critical patriotism, not be passive. It"s disloyal to have knee-jerk patriotism - mouth the platitudes. True loyalty questions, protests, defends. "Everybody"s got their own individual likes and dislikes. And unfortunately it takes sometimes a tragedy like Sept. 11 to bring us all together or remind us of our common threads. "I think PBS tries to this day in and day out, to represent a sense of what an American community might be. And part of that community is standing and having conversations with your neighbors, with your friends, with the people that matter." Ken Burns" American Stories, a weekly presentation of Burns" most memorable PBS films, follows The Civil War. THE CIVIL WAR SCHEDULE on WFYI-TV20: Sept. 22, 8 p.m., repeats Sept. 24 at midnight Sept. 23, 8 p.m., repeats Sept. 28, 2 p.m. Sept. 24, 8 p.m., repeats Sept. 28, 4:30 p.m. Sept. 25, 8 p.m. Sept. 26, 8 p.m., repeats Sept. 29, 2 p.m. KEN BURNS" AMERICAN STORIES SCHEDULE on WFYI-TV 20 at 9 p.m. Sept. 30, The Statue of Liberty Oct. 7 and 14, Frank Lloyd Wright Oct. 21, Brooklyn Bridge Oct. 28 and Nov. 4, Thomas Jefferson Nov. 18 and 25, Mark Twain Dec. 9, Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio Dec. 16, Thomas Hart Benton Dec. 23, The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God Dec. 30, Huey Long The series continues in 2003 and includes the other two epic documentaries, Baseball and Jazz, as well as Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, The West and The Congress: The History and Promise of Representative Government.