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Documentarian Ken Burns unfolds images of America at Kent State
Burns says his documentary on Shakers has a special place

Tim Rudell
Ken Burns talks with reporters before his appearance on the Kent State main campus
Courtesy of WKSU
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Ken Burns, called by many the great American documentarian, came to northeast Ohio Tuesday. He was the fifth visitor in Kent State University’s Presidential Speaker Series—WKSU’s Tim Rudell reports on what he came to say…and to see.

LISTEN: Burns talks war and peace

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Student of the people
Ken Burns has been studying America and telling its stories with award-winning films for a quarter of a century. So, when he took a moment to talk with reporters before his public appearance, WKSU's Tim Rudell asked him what he sees in this one corner of the country.

“Well, I’m a Midwestern boy, and I grew up in Ann Arbor, so I see a lot that of things that are very familiar to me. A college town, and a big campus, and the influence of students. I grew up in the 1960's. There was a much more activist student body. But I see the same thing. I mean, there is the same kind of questing. There’s the same curiosity. And I think that's what you hope stays alive.” 

May 4th, 1970
Burns also says he has a specific interest in northeast Ohio right now, and in visiting the May 4th Memorial at Kent State -- because of one of his film projects…

“The themes that we engage in our films seem perpetual; about the nature of human freedom; about the role of the government; about the question of race; all sorts of sort of sub themes to American history. And in some ways I make the same film over and over again…and in some ways each film is utterly unique. And so all of this is grist. And I am anxious to be here. I am working on a film on the history of Viet Nam War and May 4th 1970 is a hugely important day. And the introduction of our film has the iconic image of the woman standing over the body of her friend…and the lines are: ‘the Viet Nam War was a decade of agony’.”

Love ‘em all
Perhaps the most iconic of Ken Burns films also has to do with war…the Civil War. But he has done many other documentaries that drew acclaim and tremendous viewership…from “Baseball” to “Jazz.” 

So which is his personal favorite?
“You know, I’m the father of four daughters…here comes the cop-out, right? And I would be a terrible father if I liked one of them more than the other…and I don’t. And so, “Civil War” will be part of the first line of my obituary. I keep trying really hard not to make sure that isn’t, but I understand why that is. But I made a little film, my second film, after my first film on the Brooklyn Bridge, was about the celibate religious sect, the Shakers. They were in Ohio. Shaker Heights. They were an incredible group. And I love that film as much as I love the Civil War series.”

Something different
Burns typically has half a dozen film projects going at once— because they typically are panoramic tales that most of a decade to complete. But his latest, released a week ago, isn’t like that at all. It is the story of a small boarding school for boys with social and learning issues that require special care.

“For the 35 years that this school, the Greenwood School has been in existence they’ve asked there boys to memorize and then publicly recite the Gettysburg Address. Which would be a challenge for anyone, but a minefield of anxieties and terrors for these children.”

And yet, Burn says, they do it…magnificently. In fact, he believes what the boys do in presenting what he calls “some of the greatest words in American history,” is so inspiring he posted it on the PBS website…where he also asks everyone to join them. “…In what could be the largest mass memorization in all of history, you go to PBS. Org, the address, and follow the prompts.  And it allows you, your family, your friends, your class  to upload what you’ve done. And this could be a terrific moment for all of us. The kind of medicine ti was for the United States during the Civil War…the kind of medicine it could be for us today. “ 

Related WKSU Stories

World War II on the Home Front
Sunday, September 23, 2007

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