Celebrated documentary filmmaker Ken Burns took the stage in McFarlin Auditorium on the SMU campus Tuesday, Dec. 1 for the final lecture of this season’s Tate Lecture Series.
Known for his distinctive filmmaking style including pristine photography, time-period music, rare film footage and in-depth interviews, Burns is considered to be one of the most influential filmmakers in history.
University President R. Gerald Turner introduced Burns and noted his many achievements, including his 13 Emmy awards, two Grammy awards, and two Oscar nominations.
Burns’ creative work began at the age of 17 when he received an 8mm camera for his birthday. Years later in 1981, he released his first documentary, “Brooklyn Bridge,” which would go on to win an Academy Award.
His other popular works include “The Statue of Liberty,” “Baseball,” “Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio,” “Thomas Jefferson,” “Mark Twain,” and many more documentary films, including some of which are still in production.
Before beginning the lecture Tuesday, scenes from Burns’ past documentary projects were shown to the audience, giving them a taste of Burns’ past work and the subjects he’s covered. At the end of the video, Burns took the stage and was met with lively applause as he thanked the crowd and sponsors for bringing him back to Dallas.
“I am interested in the power of history and its buried voices,” Burns said.
He noted that history’s voices, whether positive or negative, are extremely important. He claimed that in his filmmaking, he attempts to portray the “true, honest, complicated past,” and emphasized how important history is for humanity not only now, but in the future as well.
“Each production asks the deceptively simple question,” Burns said. “What are we?”
According to Burns, his documentaries cannot possibly answer the question, but rather they “deepen the question.”
Burns considered how history is recorded and taught, claiming that through academia, history has become a collection of dates and moments to be memorized. As a result, the idea that there are “cycles of history” has emerged. According to Burns, however, “our world is chaotic,” and therefore is incapable of repeating itself. Quoting Mark Twain, he asserted that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
Burns then highlighted some of his previous work, talking extensively about his documentary film about the Roosevelts as well as his general research processes. He then went into detail about his unfinished works, which includes five documentaries that have yet to air.
One of these five documentaries is an extensive series on the Vietnam War, which will air on PBS in 2017.
“Forget everything you know about the Vietnam War,” Burns said.
For eight years, he and his team have been working on the Vietnam documentary and still have more work to do in the areas of sound enhancement, soundtrack recording and photo editing. In addition, Burns discussed the methods he used to collect video, photographs and interviews that make up his Vietnam War series.
“As much as we have politically certain views about what happened [in the Vietnam War]… what actually happened?” Burns asked the audience.
He said that this was the question that spurred his research for the documentary, hoping that the film could offer a “sense of meaning or order or perspective” to the events that still affect veterans and Americans today.
Burns ended his lecture with a clip of his unfinished Vietnam War documentary, which included interviews with North Vietnamese citizens, war footage that had never made it to the United States, and recently discovered photographs of the war zone.
The resounding message of his lecture and what he aimed to leave the audience with, however, was on the topic of history.
“History can be a table around which all of us can have a discourse,” Burns said. “A civil discourse.”
For more information on the SMU Tate Lecture Series, visit smu.edu/tateseries.