I had the humbling experience of hearing documentary filmmaker Ken Burns speak last night at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York.
All I can say is there have been very few occasions when I have been in the presence of true genius. Monday evening, beneath a nearly full moon, was one. Ken Burns’ fidelity to the human spirit, its history and stories, captivated the audience of some 4000 people for almost two hours – no breaks – just words and from those words a full well of respect and honor for the people, large and small, who have made us who we are. The ugly American. The beautiful American. The capable, wise, and compassionate American. The brutal American, the banal, the ruthless and cruel. He spares nothing and no one in pursuit of the story of America. Actually, they spare nothing – he and his team of researchers, writers, editors and filmmakers – crossing the nation, digging into our past, combing the archives, interviewing the soldiers and the mothers and the gifted and the lame. Interviewing anyone with a story, and then intertwining these stories into a coherent picture of who we are, and why.
His words gave picture, weight, heft and urgency to a criticle message: we are a people with a rich and enduring past; a colony seeped in flavor and ideal; a culture of kaleidoscopic color and nuance and dazzle and dance. We are the inheritors of the great gift of democracy and freedom, of a land and landscape of impossible diversity and beauty, and it is our duty to make sure these gifts are extended, honored and treasured for all they hold and all they deliver and all they mean.
During his time on stage, Mr. Burns talked about everything from the art of documentary filmmaking, which he told us, takes three things: story, story, and story. He told us of his kinship with music, and how, unlike other filmmakers who layer sound in after their films are made, Mr. Burns and his team find the music that moves them, and then layer story on top. He talked about the existential nature of our times – the difference between believing and doing, and how short our religious institutions fall in the face of the unknown. He talked of the vastness of the human spirit, its vulnerability as well as its invincibility.
Through Ken Burns’ lens we learn more about who we are, and who we have yet to be. He claims nothing for himself and sees the work only as what it is, an amalgamation of what’s already there, waiting to be found. Like the layers of rock in the precious canyon we call Grand, billions of years of earth history compressed into jagged cliffs and ledges, Ken Burns unearths the story hidden in the strata of our lives.
His next work is entitled The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. For ten years Burns and his team explored our parks and the history behind them to create a definitive story of what can be done when the ideals of democracy are opened wide, and the hallowed and sacred grounds of our country – good and evil, mountains and battlefield alike – are declared protected and open to all.
It is a theme repeated in all of his films. What is the potential of the human spirit? What can it give? What will it take? How does our history teach us? Ken Burns rocked my world last night – showing me a depth of creativity and vision I rarely see put into action.
If you ever have the opportunity – go – hear him speak. And always, always take the time to watch his films.
Naseem Rakha, August 4, 2009