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Ken Burns Turns to 'Dust'

9 Nov, 2012 By: John Latchem


For the man who directed epic documentaries about The Civil War and the history of baseball, finding something to pique his curiosity isn’t too difficult.
“Everything American interests me,” said Ken Burns, the filmmaker whose legendary association with PBS has given rise to a new documentary about the Dust Bowl, a period in the mid-1930s when drought and short-sighted farming policies turned the once-rich farmlands of the Great Plains into barren deserts and contributed to deadly dust storms.

“It was a desire to tell a complicated story that has gone untold because we have a superficial conventional wisdom about it, from what we see in The Grapes of Wrath and some of the famous photos of it,” Burns said. “It was the worst manmade ecological disaster in world history. It was biblical in its scope, but also a testament to human character and perseverance. That’s as good a story as I can think of.”

The four-hour documentary The Dust Bowl airs in two parts on PBS Nov. 18 and 19 before debuting on Blu-ray ($29.99) and DVD ($24.99) Nov. 20 from PBS Distribution.

The documentary uses rare movie footage, photographs, songs of Woody Guthrie, contemporary accounts and interviews with 26 survivors to tell the story.

“In a large measure it’s more of an oral history than any other film we’ve done,” Burns said.

He found his interview subjects by filming an appeal through local public television stations, asking for “memories, photos and home movies.” Producers held roundtable discussions at assisted living centers and historical societies.

“They all had an interesting story to tell,” Burns said. “The film lives and breathes by their testimonies.”

Burns said his most vivid memory from the production was seeing two brothers in their 80s break down and cry remembering the death of their 2-year-old sister in 1935.

“It proves that memory isn’t just a dusty, distant thing,” Burns said. “The DNA of what we do is memory.”

Of four historians interviewed for the film, Burns said, three experienced the Dust Bowl, while the fourth, Timothy Egan, wrote the book The Worst Hard Time about the subject.

The Dust Bowl is narrated by Peter Coyote, who previously narrated Burns’ Prohibition and National Parks documentaries.

“He does what all good narrators do, and that is he inhabits each word and absorbs it and gives it back so the viewer best receives the meaning,” Burns said. “He’s awesome.”

The DVD and Blu-ray versions include more than an hour of extras, including additional interviews and a look at the legacy of the Dust Bowl.

Burns said he appreciates the luxury that DVD and Blu-ray allow for including additional material, though he strives to make the film itself as complete as possible without the need for supplements.

“The cutting room floor is not filled with bad stuff,” Burns said. “But I’ve never looked at deleted scenes on any of my films.”

Burns’ next project, due April 2013, is Central Park Five, about the men — four black and one Hispanic — whose conviction  for the rape of a Central Park jogger was later overturned.

He’s currently finishing a seven-part, 14-hour documentary about Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt due in 2014. Future film subjects include Jackie Robinson for 2015, the Vietnam War for 2016 and country music for 2018.

“I don’t make films about things I already know about,” Burns said. “I’d rather share a process of discovery.”

About the Author: John Latchem

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