Monday, September 8, 2008

Man Behind the Brand: His Effect

On the afternoon of August 29th, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns came to visit the students in the symposium as the inaugural speaker, the first in a long line of brilliant individuals, each with a message distinctly and presently their own. Burns, despite my own negligence in terms of familiarity with his filmography, was an engaging and inspirational speaker.

As aforementioned, I haven't seen a lot of Burns' work. The Civil War, The War, Jazz; I had heard the names before, but I never had the opportunity to see them. However, hearing him speak about it with both specific anecdotes about several projects and, more generally, about his process and goals as equal artist and filmmaker, he made me want to quickly digest everything he has made to-date.

Early on, a student asked Burns a question about why he specifically makes documentary films and not fictional narratives, shorts, experimental, animation, et cetera. He answer was clear-cut and without hesitation; it's what he knows how to do. In all essence, he wouldn't have it any other way. He went on saying that documentary film is a "forum in which you advocate a point of view -- and, more recently, it is of the political realm" (Burns, 08/29/08). Despite this sentiment, Burns' own take on documentary is a differs a bit from this standard definition.

Burns then segued into an example of the particularities of his feelings on his own framing of a political message within his films. Clearly, the subject of politics is unavoidable, for even what you choose to show and leave out is a polemical decision. Burns noted that it is goal to keep small and big 'P' politics out of his work, as much as this is possible. As an illustration, he referenced an upcoming project, a documentary tribute to Senator Edward Kennedy who is currently being treated for brain cancer.

In this film especially, Burns' goal was not to complicate the life of a man with his party affiliations, but instead to celebrate the life of a human being who made difference in the world. The question Burns faced while making this film, the challenge of it all, was exactly this: "How do you contain a life [preserved on film] without making it a eulogy?" Admittedly, it's a tough question to answer -- and it is a question that Burns still struggles to find the answer to.

As Burns went on to describe his process, his characterization struck me as remarkably poignant. Burns' process would become a veritable through line in all of the films we would see for the remainder of the festival, a testament to artwork and true auteurship. Maybe I found this in the films we saw precisely because I was looking for it, but then again maybe there's more to such seeming coincidence than meets the eye. Burns' message was this:
"History, as in filmmaking, is all about telling stories. What are the complex personal relations [emotional archaeology] that make up the history of an event which can be described through factual means?" (Burns, 08/29/08)
Burns described the 'emotional archaeology' behind an event (or a story) as the glue. He said, "Feeling is the sticky substance which allows for one to relate to a subject. It is an impulse to find something deeper" (Burns, 08/29/08).

Hearing this and realizing at once that it matched up with my own feelings on how the microscopic (very personal stories) can be a used as a window into understanding the macroscopic (the bigger picture), I asked a follow-up question to Burns about this. It was also the question that ended our session with Burns.

Burns responded enthusiastically, enlivened by the question.
"That is an excellent question. The necessity of art is to access the personal. [Small] problems are the friction that creates life. As filmmakers, we try to frame a universal story that can become everyone's story (because it is so personal). Do you know that William Blake quote? 'The truth of the world can be found in a grain of sand.' That's the whole fucking shebang." (Burns, 08/29/08)
Yes. Ken Burns said "whole fucking shebang."

And, damn it if he didn't make my day for doing so. He gave exactly the answer I was looking for, both a confirmation of my own beliefs and a supremely unreal reinvigoration of both my aspirations and goals.

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