Posted on July 13, 2007

Burns Bends On ‘War,’ And Seems OK About It

Tim Goodman, San Francisco Gate, July 13, 2007

A minor controversy surrounding Ken Burns’ documentary “The War”—a controversy that was essentially defused in May—resurfaced briefly at the Television Critics Association press tour on Wednesday and, if nothing else, proved that even if the fire is out, there may be some embers to deal with.

That’s because even though the initial issue has been resolved—Burns added stories about Latino soldiers after complaints from Latino groups, even though no one had seen the completed film—there are still some troublesome remnants.

For example, Burns initially bristled at the idea that he be forced to add anything to his documentary, but the groups involved created a substantial ruckus with PBS and the film’s corporate sponsors. Though Burns has opted for the high road in this debate and has said, rather eloquently, that telling more stories isn’t a real burden for a filmmaker who tells stories for a living, there’s still the notion that special interest groups were able to trample on the autonomy of a filmmaker, mostly because he happens to make films for public television, which is no position financially or politically to withstand a powerful lobby.

But Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, said she didn’t believe this represented a bad precedent and reiterated that the system stood behind Burns. And yet there’s still a pretty good argument to be made that PBS didn’t support Burns enough or put up enough resistance. Both sides played nice on Wednesday and Burns, for his part, explained that he had no time to debate the issue because one of the original reasons that he made the film—more than 1,000 World War II veterans die every day—was still in play if he was going to seek out new interviewees.

“I think there’s been a kind of a hot political battle, and we tried to rise above it and take the high road and respond as best we could,” he said. “We listened. We heard that. We produced some new material and included it at the end of three of the episodes. That doesn’t alter the vision of the film that we made and completed a year and a half ago, but also adds stories. These are stories that are as powerful as anything in the film and as good as anything we produced in the film.

“So, no, we feel it was our obligation to listen and to hear. I’ve been in the business, as you know, of telling stories that haven’t been told in American history for the last 30 years and have tried to do that. It was, of course, painful to us, on one level, that people would misinterpret what the film was about, but we didn’t have the luxury of abstracting this. These people are dying—1,500 a day is now the statistic.

“It was important in a network and for filmmakers who wish to be inclusive, to have heard this. I think we’ve found the right balance, had the right compromise, that permitted us not to alter our original vision and version of the film and at the same time honor what was legitimate about the concerns of a group of people who, for 500 years, have had their story untold in American history.”

According to Current, a newspaper that covers public television and radio, discussions from multiple groups culminated in a lawyer-negotiated agreement about how the new material would be added (the groups didn’t want the new footage to be added after the credits, for example, and they wanted Burns himself, not another filmmaker, to do the pieces). But Current said some Latino groups that were not in the meeting ultimately may not be happy about the additions and where they appear. On Wednesday, Burns said the work was done and included two stories about Latino veterans and one Native American veteran.