Documentarian Ken Burns wants America to embrace its parks
By G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD -- Behind Ken Burns' new documentary "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" is a message.
Burns said in a press conference before his speech at the Springfield Public Forums on Dec. 1 that he wants families "to understand this valuable sense of ownership of the parks and that they would act with their feet and take their families there and do what so many of us who have visited the parks have, [gathered] not just memories of spectacular places, but memories of spectacular places experienced with the people closest to us."
Burns is perhaps the most honored documentary filmmaker in cinema history. His famed production of "The Civil War" was honored with more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, a Producer of the Year Award from the Producer's Guild, a People's Choice Award, a Peabody Award, a duPont-Columbia Award, a D.W. Griffith Award and the $50,000 Lincoln Prize, among dozens of others.
Burns, a 1975 graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, received an Academy Award nomination for his 1981 film "The Brooklyn Bridge."
The new documentary series aired on PBS explores the history of how the parks came to be and is more than just a travelogue or tips on how to visit the parks, Burns later said.
He admitted that picking a favorite park is difficult as they are "so beautiful, they're like your children -- you can't chose one."
He told the near capacity audience at Symphony Hall that filming the sequence on Yosemite Park awakened a long-forgotten memory of his father taking him, at age six, to visit Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
Burns stressed the unique place in history the American system of national parks have. "For the first time in human history large tracts of land were set aside not for kings or noblemen or the very rich but for everyone," he said.
"It's an utterly democratic idea," he added.
The parks are facing many threats, Burns said, from budgetary problems, including an estimated $8 billion in deferred maintenance. Climate change is also a real concern, especially at Glacier National Park in Montana where the glaciers are disappearing "at a terrifying rate."
Apathy is the biggest threat to the park system according to Burns, who while he was in production on the series, met many people who assumed the parks had always been part of the country and would always be part of the country. The parks system was formalized in 1916 by legislation signed by President Woodrow Wilson that created the National Parks Service with the charge to maintain and protect the then 40 national parks and monuments.
Burns said that in all of his films he addresses the division between Americans but seeks to "figure out a way to speak to all sides."
Burns has not been tempted to follow in fellow documentary filmmaker Michael Moore's footsteps by producing a movie with a readily apparent point of view.
"I wish to engage everybody," he said.
While he readily admitted to having points of view that are easy to see in his own films, he said of Moore's documentaries, "I don't believe his films make any converts."
While he said that Moore was talented and funny, he couldn't share Moore's approach.
"I just think it's important to me to speak to as many people as possible," he explained.
There has been a proliferation of documentary filmmakers, and Burns did acknowledge the success of his production of "The Civil War" "had a kind of dramatic sea change coming as it did at the real explosion of cable [television]."
"All of a sudden there were all of these channels and what you needed to fill them with wasn't expensive drama but so-called reality," he continued.
Burns was quick to add with a laugh that shows featuring people choosing their mate or eating bugs wasn't "reality" to him.
The digital revolution in film making technology has also contributed to the increase in documentaries, but Burns noted, "you can put a camera in everyone's hands, but that doesn't make them a filmmaker."
"You have to figure out how to tell a story," he added.
Burns is currently working on six projects all in various stages of production. His new films will include a sequel to his popular "Baseball" series, "The 10th Inning;" a production covering the 1989 Central Park jogger rape and attempted murder case; a biography on Theodore Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin Roosevelt; and a history of the Vietnam War.