“The real genuine stories are one and one equalling three.”
My entrance into the world of Ken Burns was his film The Civil War which first aired back in 1990. Though that was 22-years ago, and in a world before You Tube, Facebook, and smart phones, there were plenty of distractions in modern Amercia to be amazed that 40 million people would watch a PBS documentary consisting mostly of black and white photos and interviews—that ran 608 minutes.
As I watched his latest film The Dust Bowl on Monday and Tuesday, I thought I’d glance back at the educational foundation that prepared Burns to do his life’s work. One that would bring him two Oscar nominations (Brooklyn Bridge, The Statue of Liberty) and several Primetime Emmys (Jazz, The National Parks, Baseball, Unforgivable Blackness, The Civil War).
“‘Ken was well steeped in film history,’ remembers Morgan Wesson, who was a year ahead of Burns at Hampshire [College in Amhest, Massachusettes] and later worked with him on Empire of the Air; ‘he could quote you chapter and verse about the French New Wave, various documentary movements, whatever style had impact,’ In characterizing Jerom Liebing’s influence on them all. Wesson adds, ‘Though he might respect the craftsmanship of Hollywood films, he wasn’t about to give an inch. He was trying to convert us all to a private vision, to get us thinking on our own track. Ken took the lead from Jerry and started making documentaries.’
Burns worked part-time at the college bookstore during his four years at Hampshire (1971-1975) to help finance his education and subsidize several student film projects while earning a degree in film studies and design. Liebling, moreover encouraged his students to establish their own nonprofit company called Hampshire Films so that they would be in a position to hire themselves out at no wage to area companies and public institutions who would utilize their maturing talents while underwriting the entire cost of these commissioned productions. Clients were thus able to secure competently made informational films which they could not afford in any other way; and the students, more importantly, obtained a significant amount of much needed real-world experience. As Burns recalls, ‘it made it possible to leave Hampshire and have the confidence to start my own company and not spend years mired in someone else’s vision of things.”
Gary R. Edgerton
Ken Burns’s America
There you have it—entrepreneurial filmmaking from an unlikely place. These days Burns and the Florentine Films team are based in Haydenville, Massachusetts (just north of Northampton). Impacting the world from a town with a population of just over 1,000.
P.S. It’s worth nothing that Burns’s student film subjects included documentaries on decaying mill towns, a study on child abuse, and working in rural New England. Follow your own vision.
P.P.S. How many films over the years equate to 1+1=0?