Burns, College enjoy fruitful bond

by Laura Sim | 7/21/14 3:19pm

Documentary filmmaker and producer Ken Burns is renowned for his unique ability to deliver history to our screens, pairing a rich cultural understanding of America’s past with gripping drama. Over the years, Burns has repeatedly visited the College, most recently screening his third episode of “The Roosevelts” at the Hopkins Center on July 13.

The screening marks the fifth consecutive summer that Burns, who sits on the Hop’s board of overseers, has opened an advance screening at the College, according to a Hop press release.

Burns first came to the College when he visited to accept a Dartmouth film award in October 1990, a moment that started his relationship with the College, Hop film director Bill Pence said. Burns received the award just weeks after his film “Civil War” played to more than 40 million viewers on PBS that September.

Pence first met Burns because he presented “Huey Long” (1985) at the 1986 Telluride Film Festival, an event Pence founded in 1974. After Burns unveiled “Civil War” at Telluride four years later, Pence wanted to bring him to Dartmouth.

Burns finds at Dartmouth enthusiastic responses to his work, Pence said. While Burns juggles a full schedule, he has continued to visit the College regularly, not least because he lives only about an hour away in Walpole, Pence said.

“He loves the school first of all,” Pence said. “He has been presenting his work here now over a period of a quarter century — 25 years — and he’s never failed to fill Spaulding Auditorium.”

Burns has also taken on Dartmouth film studies students as interns over the years, particularly in his editing department, Pence said.

The large screen and capacity offered by Spaulding also bring Burns back, Pence said. “The Roosevelts” screening tickets sold out days in advance.

In 1993, Burns delivered the College’s 224th Commencement address in Leede Arena and received an honorary degree from the College. His speech received a standing ovation that lasted about a minute.

In his address, the filmmaker urged graduates to learn the history of their country so that they can shape a better future.

“We tend to ignore our past, always looking forward,” he said in his address. “This becomes a tear, a gap in who we are.”

Since then, Burns has paid countless visits to the College. For example, his film “Baseball: The Tenth Inning” opened at the Hop in 2010, and in 2012, he premiered a film on the Dust Bowl. In 2013, he visited the College for a showing of “The Central Park Five” (2012).

College historian Jere Daniell ’55 said the relationship’s strength results from Burns’s deep ties to the Upper Valley arts community. Burns is on the board of directors of the New Hampshire Humanities Council.

Just last year, Burns visited the College once more to present a screening for film students.

Sarah Lund ’16, who attended Burns’s July 13 screening, appreciated the filmmaker’s ability to maintain the integrity of the historical facts while adopting an artistic approach, she said.

“I think that Ken Burns is really unique because he takes the time to make long, complete projects instead of stuffing decades of history into one two-hour movie,” Lund, who had never seen a Burns film before the screening, said.

Attendees could ask questions after the screening, and Burns emphasized both technical filmmaking skills and the importance of telling an engaging, well-researched story, Lund said.

Burns, along with members of his creative team, also came to the College this winter for a screening of a short produced sequence along with interview footage. The screening was exclusively held with students in history professor Edward Miller’s classes on the Vietnam War, who were also able to ask questions to Burns and his team afterward. The footage was filmed for Burns’s documentary film series “Vietnam,” slated to air in 2016 on PBS.

Madeline Cooper ’16, a student in the class, said she appreciated hearing Burns speak about the people he and his team had interviewed. The visit allowed the classes to see a new side of historical research in documentary and filmmaking production, she said.

Burns is perhaps best known for his signature style of incorporating different media such as archival footage, photographs, music and voiceover, visiting professor of film and media studies Noah Isenberg said.

In addition to telling a rich historical narrative of some of America’s most important moments, Burns often incorporates a star-studded cast to support his storylines. In the past, voiceovers have featured prominent actors such as Meryl Streep and Paul Giamatti.

For many, Burns’s ability to make history seem both novel and relevant draws fans to his work.

“His films brought the history of FDR and the Great Depression alive and made it feel current,” Lund said.

Miller did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.

Laura Weiss contributed reporting.