Ken Burns: Netflix is Skywriting, Making a Doc is Like Making Maple Syrup, Human History Will Repeat Itself

The Ken Burns effect, says Artemis Joukowsky, isn’t just an editing feature. “It’s the whole way that you experience history in the present, where you live it, where you feel it.”

Joukowsky is talking about his long-time friend, the prolific documentarian with whom he co-directed Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ Wara humanist Holocaust doc feature that details the lives of Unitarian minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife, trained social worker Martha Sharp. The couple’s commitment to guiding European refugees to safety from Nazi persecution was audacious. 

“Out of a nearly 40-year career making movies, this is the first time I’ve done something like this,” says Burns, whose collaboration with Joukowsky is, to date, his only project on which he has not had full directorial control.

The Sharps’ grandson, Joukowsky says Sharps’ War “has been a project since the ninth grade,” when he first “got an assignment from my teacher to interview someone of moral courage. My mother said, ‘Talk to your grandmother; she did some cool things during World War II.'”

Burns had known Joukowsky for “many, many years,” he says of their friendship-turned-creative partnership, “but I didn’t know about this story. This is an espionage thriller that Alan Furst could’ve written, that is all true. You go from being a housewife in Wellesley, Massachusetts to dodging Gestapo agents in two months. It’s a pretty amazing immersion [of the kind that] only happens in Hollywood.”

Sharps’ War marks yet another in a long and important list of Burns’ canonical titles that have set the standard for nonfiction public broadcasting as a cinematic experience. What sets it apart, though, is that his supporting role to Joukowsky throughout its making has led him to reflect on aspects of documentary process he previously understood only as a sole author. “I took a film that had been shot by someone who wasn’t quite yet a complete filmmaker, and over three years on weekends and at night between the other projects that I’ve done, tried to make a diamond in the rough a little bit better,” Burns says. “I don’t know of another of my films—Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, anything—that I’ve looked at more times than I’ve looked at this film.”

Speaking at a special screening of the film, held at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance in July, the filmmakers gave an intimate Q&A about The Sharps’ War. Here are five things that the experience revealed to Burns about documentary as a mode, a medium, a mediator between past, present and future and a mouthpiece, both social and political.

Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War. Courtesy of PBS

“I live in New Hampshire so I’m constantly belaboring the metaphor of maple syrup. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup—which is, exactly, documentary film editing. It is all a distillation process, and you cannot have that gallon unless you’ve had 60 hours of other material that’s the grist for the mill.”

When fine-tuning Joukowsky’s archival research, Burns’ says his “distillation” method came down to: “Whoa whoa, hold your horses. Let’s not have six shots here, let’s have one. But in another case, ‘Let’s not have six shots, let’s have 12.’ I didn’t feel at a deficit having not participated in the hunter-gathering process, because I know it’s after that that’s the moment when you truly begin editing—that that sap, the process of maple syrup, is beginning to be distilled. You don’t boil it, you evaporate it off until something is there. The material talks to you too.”

With Burns’ maple syrup mill in your mind’s eye, a documentary moviemaking team should ask and answer: How do you reshape or reduce sequences of your film that aren’t working, without destabilizing sequences that are?

“Most broadcast televisionNetflix and others—is skywriting. The first zephyr, the first breeze, and it’s gone.”

Because of the ever-shifting culture of streaming spectatorship, Burns has targeted the televisions that host public broadcasting as his theater of sorts throughout his career.

The choice I made 40 years ago was that the films I made would be shown in dark rooms with strangers, but they would mainly be shown on public broadcasting, in which you take those few dozen and multiply to a few hundreds, a few thousands, into several million people,” Burns says. “We in public television have been dedicated not just to getting eyeballs to watch that first broadcast and whatever secondary and tertiary broadcasts there are, but also investing ourselves very early on in educational outreach. PBS estimates that my Civil War film is seen [at least in part] in 2,500 classrooms a day during the school year. That’s true of all of our films. We’ve worked to get the educational material so that these have significant half-lives and aren’t just skywriting that disappears with the first breeze.”

Is “skywriting” worth your time and resources? Or do Netflix and other streaming services have stronger audience reach capabilities than Burns lets on? Make your own hard decisions about which releasing strategies will maximize your documentary’s visibility, social and cultural resonance and financial afterlife.

Martha and Waitstill Sharp embark for Czechoslovakia, 1939.
 Courtesy of Andover Harvard Theological Library and PBS

“We think of the past as fixed and the future as malleable, but as we discover new material, the past seems more malleable than ever before. Each generation rediscovers and reexamines that part of the past, which gives its present new meaning and its future new possibilities. Then, all of a sudden, you have different perspectives. If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t possibly know where you are and where you’re going.”

Burns measures documentarians, here, by their degree of agency in the historical world, and the extent to which they meet their obligation to shape and reshape historical time and space to tell their stories. He continues by recalling his discovery of the fact that 45 percent of the South’s soldiers during the Civil War was African-American: It’s “one of the best stories I know, but it wasn’t told. We had to escape the specific gravity of all of the Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind insanity to finally be able to say that there was another dimension.”

Of all the stories your documentary could explore, be they regional, universal or a combination of both, which contains the most unlikely, hidden truth? Once you find what story that is, single it out and exhaust its possibilities of excavating new history, new meaning.

“Even by the time Sharps’ War was wrapping up, we didn’t [feel] the imminent [political] threat that many of us feel right now. But this is a function of human nature. What we have on our side is the historical record to be able to say, ‘Never again.’ Unfortunately, there’s nothing new under the sun. Human nature remains the same.”

Burns relates the anti-fascist narrative of Sharps’ War to the contemporary political climate when asked about the possibilities of standing up to modern fascism.

“The same laws of storytelling apply to a documentary filmmaker as it does to a feature filmmaker, but we can’t make stuff up. Our things get manipulated by selectivity, but we can’t make those things up,” Burns says. “You’re always mindful that human nature, it’s Ecclesiastes: ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.’ We hope, we pray that history’s a rising road, that we do make progress. But we also understand that we are just as easily able to devolve back into things which an early 19th-century central Europe felt they’d escaped… from the Middle Ages, from the Painted Bird, even from World War I. And yet we never have a conversation like, ‘I’m working on this thing about Vietnam; boy, this is so much like Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria.’ It is, but it has nothing to do with anything you did in the editing room.”

When establishing links between past atrocities and present-day problems, remain skeptical of whether or not the links you are establishing are as “unique” as they may seem. As Burns points out, humans’ darker nature often exists outside of the realm of historical context. Timeliness, while a potent ingredient to documentary storytelling, can also undermine timelessness when setting out to develop a story whose humanity surpasses its political prescience.

“Filmmaking is about respiration. There’s an inhalation and an exhalation. Part of what humor does is permit you—just as chapters do, when you fade out or even have an internal chapter title—to let go of some of the information you’ve had. You’re permitted to divest yourself of some of that urgency and impossibility when you just can’t take it any longer.”

Despite his prescriptive take on human beings’ penchant for self-destruction, several offbeat moments with interviewees in Sharps’ War remind that Burns hasn’t lost sight of the necessity for laughter to punctuate even the toughest of subject matter.

“Humor is one of those wonderful ways of hitting the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the same time, Zen says. There’s a kind of absurdity to it and it helps you get through sometimes the worst of times,” Burns says.

“I was just with Senator Alan Simpson and he said somebody told him, ‘That was a mixed blessing,’ and Simpson said, ‘No, a mixed blessing is when a father sees his daughter come home from a date and she’s carrying a Gideon’s Bible.'”

Of course if your ambition is to make the next transformative nonfiction narrative, make sure it’s as tightly and tautly constructed as it can be… but don’t forget to loosen up. MM

Defying the Nazis: Sharps’ War premiered on PBS September 20, 2016 and is now available on DVD and iTunes. Check local listings for re-air dates and times. 

Featured image by Lisa Berg, General Motors, courtesy of Florentine Films.

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