Interview: Ken Burns on 'The Central Park Five' and the thriving state of documentary filmmaking
"That’s what we look for," he says. "And even though the film is so stylistically different from many of the other films I’ve done -- no narration, different sort of musical sensibility to it -- it nonetheless is in keeping with the many themes that we find throughout our work, which is race and justice and American good and bad. It’s in all of it."
Over the years Burns has worked with his daughter and McMahon on documentary projects, but this is the first time they share credit for the finished product equally. The collaboration was smooth, he says. There was no real sense of competition or fights or anything. Just a nice system of checks and balances.
"Two of us always agreed on something and the other one had to give it up," he says. "Sometimes it was Sarah and Dave saying, 'No, Dad,' and other times it was Sarah and me saying, 'No, Dave,' or sometimes it was Dave and me, having had the most filmmaking experience saying, 'No, Sarah.' And it really worked well."
He also makes it a point of mentioning editor Michael Levine as a crucial collaborator in the enterprise, drawing all of the original interview material together with news footage and the accoutrement of investigative filmmaking to compose a powerful but strictly informative piece of work.
But one under fire itself, nevertheless.
In early September, lawyers representing New York City subpoenaed unused footage from the film to use as supporting evidence in the still-pending, aforementioned lawsuit. The city feels the film is in the realm of advocacy, rather than documentary, but Burns feels first and foremost that shield laws apply for the film's protection as journalism, and that, more to the point, his and his co-directors' continued request for law enforcement participation in interviews shows a clear objective intention. It's ironic, he feels, that his "least subjective film" has drawn this kind of controversy, but he is also incredibly insulted by the whole undertaking.
"In their original subpoena, they put the Matias Reyes, the actual rapist’s, confession in quotes," he says. "They put the word 'confession' in quotes, which I found just an unbelievable insult, not just to us but to the judge that ruled on the vacation of the conviction, on the other colleagues of theirs who reinvestigated, on their old boss, Robert Morgenthau, who is now retired but still actively following this. It’s an amazing, amazing bit of cynicism and an attempt to rewrite the facts. Its like saying, 'No, no, no. Two and two really do equal five. I promise. I promise.'"
The film enters a lively documentary fray later this month as it joins such heralded work as "The Imposter," "Searching for Sugar Man" and "West of Memphis." The wealth of quality work will make for an intriguing awards race in the non-fiction realm, and it's representative of something larger, too.For someone who has had his finger on the pulse of documentary filmmaking for three decades, Burns has a fair idea of how thriving it may be. His optimism bursts through as he notes that the form is "only getting better" as more and more people are turning to it.
"I’ve been saying for 30 years that it’s a golden age," he says. "We thought for a while that documentary was a narrow band of the spectrum and that Hollywood produced this wide variety of things, but as we’ve seen the forms get so tired and so worn out and the same familiar plot, we realize that each documentary is itself a new set of dramatic things.
"And there's so many varieties of documentaries, from the stylized work of Errol Morris to the political advocacy of Michael Moore, from the humor of Morgan Spurlock to the cinéma vérité of Fred Wiseman. There’s just tons and tons and tons of varieties of documentaries that are, I think, expanding the notion of how we tell stories. And they’re no longer didactic. They’re no longer homework. They’re as dramatic as feature films."
"The Central Park Five" opens in limited release on November 23.