Filmmaker Ken Burns, keeper of history, visits FDU

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Associate Professor Gary Darden leads a lively Q&A with filmmaker and documentarian Ken Burns. (Photos by W. Scott Giglio)

By Kenna Caprio

History came alive in Hennessy Hall as acclaimed filmmaker and documentarian Ken Burns discussed the value of liberal arts, the importance of shared history and the art of truth-telling in film. Gary Darden, chair of the social sciences and history department and associate professor of history, moderated the Q&A event at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus on November 19.

Highlights from their conversation:

On liberal arts:

Calling himself the “Hampshire College poster child,” he studied liberal arts and film at the school in the 1970s, Burns suggested that the push towards STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects should not come at the expense of liberal arts.

“All disciplines are important and not to the exclusion of another,” he said. “The heart of liberal arts is to triangulate the truth from different points of view.” Students need to learn “a variety of modes of inquiry before becoming a fully-formed person.”

He suggested students read “Self-Reliance,” an essay written in 1841 by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and pay special attention to the phrase, “inly rejoices.” Find the subject and career that aligns with what appeals to the heart’s desires, he said. “Who are we? Who am I? That’s what you’re here to figure out.”

On challenges:

“Every time I do a [film] project, there are a million problems and things to overcome,” Burns said. And that’s a positive. “The thing is the process,” he said. Not just the result.

He said he asks himself two questions when he goes to bed at night: “Have I been a good father?” and “How can I make my film or films work better?”

On filmmaking:

“I am a storyteller first and foremost,” Burns said. “I’m not interested in changing the facts.”

Currently, he is at work on a film about the Vietnam War, and has found “what we know is wrong. Our views are colored by our political sensibilities … if we can go back and strip away conventional wisdom … it’s much more interesting,” he said.

“What compels us and draws us in  … are the higher emotions,” said Burns. In his films he strives to “evoke those higher emotions without crass sentimentality.”

He also encouraged the audience to “do your homework.” That’s how in his films he dispels popular myths that have become, over time, treated as fact. History is not a cycle, he said. “Human nature remains the same and super imposes itself over events.”

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Darden, Burns, senior and film major Jordan Durham and FDU President Sheldon Drucker pose for a photo prior to the event.

On heroism:

While making “The Roosevelts,” Burns found himself realizing that the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive Republican agenda is the same as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s progressive Democratic agenda. “These were extraordinary, deeply flawed people,” he said. “We think heroism is perfectionism … but our selection process is skewed. I don’t know any perfect human being.” Instead, he suggested, the complications and contradictions of history and humanity are what make a story worth exploring.

“History,” he said, “is by no means some safe thing.”

On America’s history:

World War II was the “greatest cataclysm” in the world’s history, he said. For America, it’s the Civil War.

“Today is 152nd anniversary of the Gettysburg Address,” Burns said, calling it America’s “operating manual 2.0. Thomas Jefferson wrote 1.0 [the Declaration of Independence].”

He continued: “In 1863, Abraham Lincoln, in two minutes and ten seconds, rewrote our catechism. This is what we affirm. It’s still poetry.”

In Closing:

Darden ended the event by asking Burns if he could pick a favorite among his films. Burns invoked a sentiment attributed to composer Duke Ellington and replied: “The one I’m working on now.”

Later in the evening, Burns traveled to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J. to speak at the New Jersey Speakers Series, presented by FDU.

For more than 35 years, Ken Burns has directed and produced some of the most acclaimed documentaries ever made, including "The Civil War" (1990), "Baseball" (1994), "The War" (2007), "Prohibition" (2011) and most recently, "The Roosevelts" (2014), a record-breaking broadcast on PBS. His films have won 12 Emmy Awards and received two Oscar nominations.