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Ken Burns is one of the world’s most well known and respected documentarians, but his films rarely make an appearance in cinemas. He has made an indelible name for himself with his meditative and expansive PBS studies, which tackle broad cultural phenomena ranging from “Baseball” to “The Civil War.”
But Burns feels that there is “a sense of urgency” attached to his latest endeavor, “The Central Park Five,” which warrants a theatrical release. And a tidy (for Burns) two-hour run time makes it possible.
The film, which premieres at next month's Cannes Film Festival where the hope is to secure a distributor, is the result of a joint familial effort between Burns, his daughter, Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon. It follows the story of the infamous “Central Park Five,” the five young men who were convicted of brutally beating and raping a Central Park jogger in 1989 only to have their convictions overturned after several years served.
In 2003 the five filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit against New York City and the filmmakers hope that the documentary will help to bring the case back into the public eye. PBS also has plans to air the film but the timing will be dependent on the theatrical roll out.
"We'd hope for some kind of harmonic convergence, where this story could be spread on the eve of the trial and potentially affect the outcome," McMahon told TV guide in a recent interview. "It would seem only fair, given that media coverage affected the outcome of the original trial."
The teenagers' confessions were reportedly coerced from a police force that was facing massive public scrutiny and pressure to make an arrest that would stick. The citizens of New York were incensed by the heinous violence of the case and were screaming for the capture of those responsible.
Burns was originally meant to direct the film, which was based on the book his daughter Sarah was writing, “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding.” It ultimately became a more balanced collaboration between the three, the result of which is said to be a break from Burns’s typical style.
"When people see there's no narration and it's really fast paced, they go 'Wow, this is a departure,'” Burns told TV Guide. "It's a departure only in the most superficial way. In nearly every film, we've struggled to come to terms with America's original sin, which is race. One only needs to pick up the paper to read about Trayvon Martin, or look at the history books and the Scottsboro Boys, to understand that, unfortunately, it's not some unique story in American history."
What will be interesting to trace is the impact the Burns filmand the media at large has on this case versus the sensationalism of the original trial which resulted in hasty and inaccurate convictions. Similarly, the West Memphis Three continue to be a topic of discussion this year as the Peter Jackson-produced "West of Memphis" (which premiered at Sundance) sheds some new light on that case when it hits theaters later this year.
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