9 October 2002

Ken Burns: oxymoronic hybrid

Dubbed the world's most influential documentary film-maker, Ken Burns has made his name and fortune bringing the past to life. "I've become so influential," Burns told The Bulletin, "that one of our most respected historians said recently that more Americans get their history from me than from anywhere else, to paraphrase the [American] ABC news slogan."
Burns delivered the keynote address at the 2002 NSW Premier's History Awards last Friday. Premier Bob Carr had been trying to get Burns to Australia since he instituted the awards in 1997. He was booked to come last year but September 11 intervened. Yet the director of the most watched documentary in television history, the epic nine-part The Civil War, admits he is "completely untrained in American history".
I'm an amateur historian, a popular historian at best, but I have a huge, huge following in the States. We estimate that over 75 million Americans have seen The Civil War, 50 million saw Baseball and more than 35 million watched Jazz, and that's an amazing testament to the power of television." Burns puts his success down to an ability "to touch the popular nerve" and to produce films that "rather than express an already arrived-at end, are rather about me sharing with the audience a process of discovery".
But it also takes a magician's skill: "I mean I've got these dead, morbid still photographs, these first-person quotes lying dusty in an archive; I've got the commentary of scholars who over the course of a two-hour interview might be as dry as toast; I've got some narration and I'm trying to make a historical event come alive. It's what I do to those materials that hopefully makes you feel for a moment what it was like to be there." Burns recently redigitised every photograph in The Civil War, and added new voice¬overs and remastered the sound for the series' DVD release. The revised program has just been rebroadcast in the US, again with record ratings.
Carr hosted a dinner for Burns last week which included self-confessed US history "tragics", former federal opposition leader Kim Beazley and former Wran government minister Rodney Cavalier. Burns was apparently impressed with his host's depth of knowledge of American history. "I don't come to Australia with any expectations, but I'm thrilled to be here because a politician in your country not only has a love of history, which is rare, but of American history, which is even rarer. My films have actually done extraordinarily well here; The Civil War had higher ratings here [for SBS] than in the US – and it remains the highest-rating program ever aired on PBS [the US Public Broadcasting Service]."
Burns originally wanted to be a Hollywood director but discovered non-fiction in college. He moved 25 years ago to rural New Hampshire where "I could live for nothing and have the luxury of being unconcerned with the marketplace". But working in the public sector is no impediment to wealth in the land of the profit motive. "I've actually made a huge amount of money and I've paid back all my grants. I'm a unique oxymoronic hybrid – a documentary film-maker who is actually known and has made money."
He spent Friday with Carr in Port Macquarie for the announcement of the awards, where Nadia Wheatley won the $15,000 Premier's History Prize for her 2001 biography of post-war author and columnist Charmian Clift.
Of slight build but determined disposition, Burns has the tenacity to see his multi-hour epics to completion not over months but years. "You never know it's going to be 19 hours long going in. Jazz took 6½ years to finish, to the day." His schedule is all booked up for the next 10 years, with a major series on Martin Luther King in development and another on World War II slated to air in 2009 or 2010. "I have a lot on my plate." Meanwhile, Burns' 2001 four-hour biography of Mark Twain airs next year on ABC-TV.
And the next target for NSW's impresario premier, who previously brought Gore Vidal to Sydney for the 1998 Sydney Writers' Festival, is historian and former JFK speech-writer Arthur Schlesinger jnr.
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First published in The Bulletin

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