Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Ten minutes with Ken Burns

Ken Burns delivered the commencement address last May.

Ken Burns has directed and produced some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made. His films expertly blend period photographs, film, music, remarks by historians and scholars, and narration to tell stories in a sit-up-on-Dad's-lap style that seems to fly in the face of today's fast-paced world. Prior to delivering Lehigh's commencement address in May, Burns took a few minutes to share his views with Bill Doherty.

Your documentaries always seem to tell stories that are uniquely American. How do you choose your topics?

The best way to answer that is to say that they pick me. I'm so passionately involved in American history. I'm so interested in all its many varied stories. It's kind of like the lottery. You have so many great stories to choose from, so many ideas bouncing around in your head like the lottery ping-pong balls, and then one of them goes down into your heart. And that's the one you have to do, whether it takes two years, six or seven years.

And I never pick something that I know too much about. I pick subjects that I know little or nothing about. That's why documentaries are like cauliflower or castor oil for most people, in my opinion ... They know that they're good for them, but are they good-tasting? People often turn away from documentaries because filmmakers are telling them something that they already know rather than sharing with you the process of discovery.

In today's world, with hundreds of TV stations, instant messaging, and where history for some folks is what they've eaten for breakfast, how do we swing the pendulum back so that young people understand the importance of history?

I don't know if you can ever swing it back. What you have to remind people is that just because in today's MTV age, you can receive an image in 1/60th of a second -- whether it's a picture of a girl or a car -- it doesn't mean that it has any meaning. All real meaning accrues in duration. And after a while, people begin to realize this -- that they're hungry for something more.

Where should young people, such as today's Lehigh students, start when attempting to learn more about history -- with their personal family history, with world history, U.S. history?

It should be a combination of all of them. I think that we too separate the things that matter in our own lives -- which is our personal history -- from the larger, broader context of United States and world history. My feeling is that it's all one in the same and that history is mostly made up of the word "story." So it becomes important to remember that what you did this morning is history -- and where do you place it?

We live, unfortunately, in a world that is so focused on the now, in a world that says if you just buy everything that everything will be alright. But it's not going to be alright, because we have to have some historical awareness in order to get through the tough times that the world is inevitably going to be plunged into. I'm curious about arming people in the best way possible. That's what I hope my films do and my words do.

What's the danger of not investing in history?

It's all the things we worry about. I don't know how you can possibly know who you are and where you are and perhaps more importantly, where you're going unless you know where you've been. So what we do have is a kind of somnambulistic culture that sleepwalks its way though the times.

We're in the middle of a war. Does anyone do anything? Do we learn any lessons from past wars, do we turn down our thermostats, do we drive less often or drive more fuel-efficient cars? Are we asked to do anything by our leaders?

We have now a separate military class that suffers all the losses, apart and alone. I'm finishing a film on the Second World War, a mammoth complement to our Civil War series. And that was a time when the country was together, a time when everybody did something. Kids collected scrap and saved milkweed for life jackets. Bacon fat was saved to make bullets and ammunition.

That's not the case today. We believe if we wear the right perfume or the right blue jeans that everything will be alright. Well, it's not going to be alright. One of the most comforting things to own is a past, because it permits you to understand that these vagaries have happened and will happen again and this is how people in the past went through those times. History allows you to understand what true leadership is, what heroism is -- not of the kind we see in our movies, but heroism of the ordinary kind. Raising a child well is an act of heroism, for instance.

What's your next project?

It's called The War and it'll be out in 2007. We follow four geographically distributed American towns and tell the whole American experience of the Second World War through the eyes of these four towns. Choosing to tell the story of the war from the perspective of four completely different towns, plus the fact that we found some amazing, never-seen-before footage of some of the horrific battles of World War II, makes this documentary different from any that I've ever done.

How did you choose the four American towns?

It took a long time -- several years of trial and error -- before finally latching on to the right ones. The four towns that I ended up with are Waterbury, Conn.; Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; and LaVerne, Minn., a small farming community in the southwestern part of the state. I think each of these four towns offers unique perspectives on the war.

What do you learn about yourself when you do these documentaries?

This is the single best question that anyone has ever asked me. It is to my benefit that I have the opportunity to do this. It's wonderful for me to be able to keep myself fresh and free, I hope, of formula. I try to speak from my heart in these films, to be real, and to try and give away what I've learned. A lot of people are very parsimonious. They want to think that they can't talk about their next project or what's going on, or their secrets. I don't have any secrets. I feel the more you give it away, the better you are. The films give me an opportunity to give away what I've learned.

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Fall 2006

Photo by Theo Anderson

Posted on Tuesday, November 07, 2006

share this story: