Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns has been making documentaries for 43 years, and he told a Baylor University audience Monday that he’s not looking to slow down anytime soon.
Burns has in mind a host of projects, from country music to Muhammad Ali to the American Revolution, that should keep him busy until 2030, when he’s 77. He’s thrilled that people in today’s quick-moving world of social media still want to invest their time in his multi-part PBS documentaries.
“Everybody likes to see a cat with a ball of yarn (in a YouTube video),” said Burns, who spoke with Baylor professor David A. Smith during a question-and-answer session after his speech Monday afternoon in Waco Hall for this year’s Beall Russell Lectures in the Humanities. “There’s a tsunami of information out there, but a lack of attention. We’re calibrated to the shorthand of our social media.”
But that people are willing to watch Burns’ lengthy programs means that they are drawn to learning more about American history, and he said he feels obligated to share the story without the partisan fracturing seen so often in social media.
“You’ll never win an argument with ‘You’re wrong,’” he said, “but you will if you tell a story.”
“I’m interested in the power of history and its varied voices,” he told a packed Waco Hall crowd during the lecture, weaving through anecdotes about his best-known documentaries on the Civil War, baseball and jazz.
He held up a newspaper, saying that he still reads one daily.
“This connects me every day,” he said. “And I watch the old-fashioned nightly news, with stories that are generally selected for everybody, not the cable news programs.”
He said too many people are in their own “silos,” rejecting any information that conflicts with their narrative, and people can’t discuss topics with a civil tone.
He lamented that civics is rarely taught anymore, but at its core, it is about working together for the greater good.
His most recent documentary, a two-hour presentation on the Mayo Clinic, is a good example of that. It’s a straightforward story about the amazing work the clinic does, he said.
“It’s not a health-care debate,” he said, “But after we were done, you can’t ignore the 800-pound gorilla about how politicians have hijacked the health-care debate. We the people haven’t take over the health-care debate.
“Forget Republicans. Forget Democrats. Forget independents. What do we need to have a good health-care system?”
Civics, he said, “it’s how you get things done. It’s how you work with other people.”
Burns said making documentaries isn’t easy work, but it’s rewarding that so many people watch them.
He’s been told that Vietnam veterans who never spoke about their experiences during the war have opened up about it after watching Burns’ Vietnam War documentary last year with their families.
The series was viewed by more than 39 million people on the PBS broadcast, and another 13 million views came via streaming.
“That’s a huge number of Americans watching the first time,” he said, “adding that with the documentary on Netflix, it expands the viewership even farther.”
That the Civil War program was made 28 years ago and is still shown in classrooms today amazes him.
“People are drawn to history by the visual stories we draw, and that’s very exciting,” he said.