For filmmaker Ken Burns, the pathway into filmmaking was set from the time he was twelve years old. Many young children think about what they want to be when they grow up, but for Burns, his desire to tell stories and make movies came from the powerful moment where he witnessed film offering a safe space for someone close to him to feel emotion.
“In an interesting way [my career] was born in tragedy,” he tells me. “My mother had cancer from the time I was about two years old. She died a little bit before my twelfth birthday. My father had a fairly strict curfew, but he’d forgive it so that I could watch any kind of films on TV with him. Documentaries… feature films. We’d go out to the movies on a school night… stay up really late. I saw my dad cry [during a movie.] and he’d never cried before, and so I realized instantaneously that I wanted to be a filmmaker.”
Burns was born in Brooklyn, New York to a biotechnician mother and an anthropologist father. The family was highly academic and moved around to several different cities while he was growing up, eventually settling in Ann Arbor, Michigan where his father ended up teaching. Burns had a mind for true life stories and is said to have always gravitated towards history over fiction. He received his first 8mm film camera for a birthday gift at the age of seventeen and soon after shot a short documentary about a factory in town.
Burns was offered a place at the University of Michigan at a reduced tuition due to his father’s tenure there, but instead chose to leave and go to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. The college was brand new, only in its second academic year when Burns arrived and had a unique structure where students were evaluated by review in lieu of letter grades. They were also able to put together their own courses of study rather than taking a prescribed course load assigned by major.
Upon graduating, Burns formed a production company with a couple of his friends and went to work. He initially worked as a cinematographer for the BBC, but eventually moved on to direct his own projects. Just six years after graduating college Burns earned an Oscar nomination for his documentary about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. He became known for his style of cutting between still images in a fluid fashion in between interviews with his subjects. His mission was always to get to the heart of the story.
For Burns, that pivotal moment of witnessing his father cry for the first time was seminal and formative. In many ways it shaped his entire outlook on filmmaking. He knew innately that storytelling and particularly film had a way of pulling emotions out of people even when they were repressing them in their day-to-day life.
“My dad had not cried while my mom was sick, had not cried when she died, and had not cried at the funeral…all of a sudden I went, a-ha! I get it. Film had offered some emotional safe haven.”
Burns discovered later in his career that he himself had been repressing some of the grief over the loss of his mother and there came a moment where he had to process it. Luckily, he says that he ultimately found a way to use his work to redirect that energy.
“I wish I could tell you that for me [film] was a way to cope. I think it was the other way around. I think I built a kind of bunker… It really took me a long time for this repressed, not expressed trauma to catch up to me and I must have been forty. It was a year or so after the Civil War series came out… it just sort of hit me and I realized now I had to deal with it. I began to integrate it. Anybody who’s had that kind of childhood trauma knows that the half-life of grief is endless. It’s not about getting rid of it. It’s about having a real relationship to it and understanding it.”
This coming April, Burns will have been without his mother for fifty-seven years, which he feels is simply too long to be alive on this planet without a mother. It’s a day to day feeling that he’s learned to deal with, and he feels it’s reflected in his work. Burns tells me that his ex-father-in-law, who was a psychologist once equated his desire to sort of resurrect the dead through documentary filmmaking to a personal subconscious desire to bring his mother back.
“Waking the dead. That’s what I do for a living,” he says. “I make people who are long gone come alive and there’s only one person that I really wanted to make that happen [to] and that’s not going to happen. But this is a way in which some lemonade has been made from a whole bunch of lemons and that’s almost a definition of life. Everybody will have problems, everybody will have loss, and everybody will have grief and it’s really what you do with it. How honest you are with yourself and how you respond to it, how you get help from others, how you seek community.”
Burns says that his filmography can be simply described as films about the U.S. but to him he feels like he’s also telling stories about the collective societal us. He likes telling stories about America as a collection of flawed, imperfect people who often strive to be heroic. His documentaries about people like Muhammad Ali, Thomas Jefferson, Jackie Robinson, Lewis & Clark, Earnest Hemingway as well as the upcoming documentary about Benjamin Franklin tell honest stories about the entirety of a person–both their humility and their hubris.
“We live in a superficial media culture in which we assume heroism is perfection,” he says. “And it isn’t. When you study history and you come into contact with so called, ordinary people… there are no ordinary people as we learned in making our film about World War II. But when you take the people that we do generally regard as extraordinary, you begin to see how very much like us they are. How beset they are by traumas, by flaws, by all these different circumstances and it’s what you do with them that matters.”
When it comes to so called ordinary people doing extraordinary things, the upcoming Benjamin Franklin documentary is no exception. When considering the American Revolution and the birth of our nation it seems natural to gravitate towards figures like George Washington, or in the last few years, Alexander Hamilton, but people forget about how important Benjamin Franklin was and Burns wants to remind us.
“He’s not on the hundred-dollar bill for no reason,” Burns tells me. “He’s a symbol of American striving. Because he comes from a lower class, and he puts himself up into a higher class. But more importantly he understood how fallacious the notion of class is. He’s a great writer, he’s a humorist, he’s a scientist, he’s a civic leader who understands it’s better to work together than apart. He’s the first person who understands that these disparate American colonies from Georgia to New Hampshire have in common some things that if they worked in common it would work. And all of a sudden twenty years before the revolution he’s the first one to conceptualize what it might mean for there to be an us. All united.”
It’s hard not to feel like Burns’ films hold up a mirror to our current society. Even when he’s featuring a historical subject the parallels between our current times are uncanny. Even in the upcoming Franklin doc, the subject of inoculation and failure to inoculate is a theme. When it comes to the age-old adage that history repeats itself, Burns has his own unique take on that idea.
“People say that history repeats itself,” he says. “It doesn’t ever repeat itself, but Mark Twain is supposed to have said, it rhymes. And I go back further to Ecclesiastes…What has been will be again and what’s done will be done again, there’s nothing new under the sun. That mean’s human nature doesn’t change, but the circumstances that humans face [will.] Every single film I’ve made feels like it’s talking about today… and now since it’s been nearly fifty years of doing this you’re just flabbergasted by the way in which [history] rhymes with the present.”
It’s hard not to agree with this take. Every single one of his historical films reminds me of what we’re enduring as humans today and Burns tells me that this is purely coincidental. He’s not trying to draw comparisons or be too on the nose or tongue in cheek with the similarities. He tells me that when in the editing room and whittling down the material for a final cut of one of his films, the heart of humanity always takes precedent, and that heart usually encapsulates the reasons we are similar as opposed to different.
“Someone asked me, what would Franklin think about all this social media today? and I said he was social media then,” Burns says. “We all think that it’s the technology that’s the tail that’s wagging the dog. Who cares that Twitter, or Snapchat or Instagram or whatever…He controlled printing! He had newspapers. This was it. He does almanacs; he’s telling funny jokes; he’s doing little homespun stories. He’s advertising for runaway slaves to be caught and beaten. This is all the bad stuff of the Internet, all the good stuff of the Internet, but it wasn’t called the Internet, it was called a newspaper.”
Burns says that his is one of the reasons why he’s been happy to work the fields of documentary rather than feature films is because the best stuff is stuff that’s actually happened and in many cases the most impressive of events are the ones that occurred long before our current era of history.
“Here’s the arrogance of the present… because we’re alive we think somehow we’re better than those people who went before,” he says. “That the conversation you and I are having in 2022 is in any way better than 10,000 years ago. There were conversations much more deep and complicated talking about exactly the same things that we’re talking about. Except these people knew their stuff. They knew exactly how to figure out the distance from here to there celestially. Do you? I don’t. Complicated emotions…these have been going on for as long as there have been human beings who have hearts that can be broken.”
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