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Filmmaker Dodges Criticism, Refuses to Alter 'War'

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Filmmaker Dodges Criticism, Refuses to Alter 'War'

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Filmmaker Dodges Criticism, Refuses to Alter 'War'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

This September, public television will air the latest documentary by Ken Burns. It's about World War II and it's called, simply, "The War." Before it's even been broadcast, the film has generated controversy. Burns has been criticized before by people who said there were editorial gaps in its films about baseball and jazz. Now, Latino and Native American groups say Burns has left them out of his story about the Second World War.

NPR's Felix Contreras has this report.

FELIX CONTRERAS: "The War" uses four cities and towns to document the effects of World War II on soldiers who fought and the people they left behind. The 14-hour film was six years in the making.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The War")

Unidentified Man: The war touched every family on every street in every town in America - towns like Lavern, Minnesota; Sacramento, California; Waterbury, Connecticut and Mobile, Alabama.

CONTRERAS: Before a meeting with Hispanic advocacy groups, Burns said the film is a departure because it uses anecdotal interviews to tell the story from the bottom up rather than presenting academics, historians and other experts.

Mr. KEN BURNS (Filmmaker, "The War"): For some reason, it has come to me that I'm definitive. We'd made a film, which is for the first time in writing professionally, I'm not even trying to be definitive or comprehensive and hundreds, thousands, millions of stories are not going to be untold.

CONTRERAS: It's specifically because the Burns' film is presented as definitive that Hispanics and Native Americans are so upset while African-American soldiers and Asian Americans are interviewed in the film. According to those who either seen excerpts or read the script, there are no Latinos or Native Americans included in the documentary.

Mr. ALFRED GALVAN (Member, American GI Forum): The way it looks, we don't even exist.

CONTRERAS: Alfred Galvan has not seen the documentary. He's a member of the veterans group, American GI Forum, which is part of a broad coalition protesting the lack of Latino and Native American presence in the film.

Mr. GALVAN: I don't know what this man was thinking. There's got to be us included fully like the rest of them.

CONTRERAS: Research by the U.S.-Latino and the Latino World War II oral history project indicates there were over 500,000 Hispanic soldiers who served during the war. After protest erupted, PBS and Burns agreed to meet with representatives with some for the groups challenging the film. At that meeting, it appeared to some that the filmmakers were willing to change the documentary.

PBS announced the noted Latino filmmaker Hector Galan would produce additional content to include Hispanics and Native Americans. But it seems there was a misunderstanding about how that new material would be used. PBS said it would be woven, quote, "seamlessly within what was described as the footprint of the broadcast." Critics howled that Hispanics and Native Americans would be squeezed in during breaks and as an addendum after the film.

The controversy reached Capitol Hill when the Congressional Hispanic Caucus backed the vets demand that the film be change. Congressman Xavier Becerra is a Democrat from California.

Representative XAVIER BECERRA (Democrat, California): I appreciate that PBS has been willing to sit down and talk but we want them to do more than just sit down and talk. We believe that if they're going to use taxpayer dollars to produce documentaries that talk about the American experience, that they should know that should used those dollars well.

CONTRERAS: PBS and Ken Burns say the film is finished and will not be re-cut. One Latino producer has sympathy for their predicament. Louise Ortiz is the managing director of Latino Public Broadcasting, which represents Hispanic producers hoping to sell their work to public broadcasters, including PBS. He said there are issues of representation if Latinos are excluded from the documentary but...

Mr. LUIS ORTIZ (Managing Director, Latino Public Broadcasting): If you talk to any independent producer, I think one of the biggest themes that comes up is artistic freedom, freedom to have the creative control of your film, and be able to tell the story that you truly will set out to do. And I think any independent filmmaker would understand that and would not want to see Ken Burns have to change the film that he originally set out to do.

CONTRERAS: The controversy has become father for Hispanic bloggers, list serves, radio hosts and newspaper editorials. Rafael Ventura-Rosa has a law degree from Yale and is into Latin music business as an artist manager. On the Latin music list serve, he suggested Hispanic should fund, produce and distribute their own cultural expression rather than, quote, "nitpicking with others about how to tell Latino stories."

Mr. RAFAEL VENTURA-ROSA (Artist Manager): If we've got a story to tell, we should go our there and try to tell it our way, using our resources and our people and not just preaching to each other and get it out in the mainstream.

CONTRERAS: After his meeting with representatives from advocacy groups, Ken Burns says he welcome the discussions and was anxious to hear the Hispanic point of view on World War II.

Mr. BURNS: No one filmmaker can tell the story. And in fact, I look forward to the Latino community coming up and helping tell us the story, so that nobody is relying on Ken Burns to tell everybody's story.

CONTRERAS: For now, Burns is at work with filmmaker, Hector Galan, to meet a June deadline to include Latino and Native American stories in the DVD. Meanwhile, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus continues its efforts to change the film and has hinted it may ask Congress to take a harder look at PBS funding next year.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

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