Ken Burns and the Debate on Artistic Freedom
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Later, how the Mormon Church is reaching out to African-Americans. But first, for many Americans, history only really comes alive when Ken Burns tells them about it. His latest film for PBS is a 14-hour documentary on World War II titled "The War". But the film, set to air this September, has aroused the anger of some Latino groups because, they say, it fails to account for the Latino experience during the war.
Advocacy groups have demanded that Burns re-cut the film and pressured sponsors to cut ties if he refused to do so. After extensive of talks, Burns agreed to incorporate the stories of Hispanic vets between the credits. But one group whose advocate's changing the film, the Defend The Honor Campaign, is reserving judgment, and other filmmakers are worried about the precedents this sets.
To discuss this question, we talk to award-winning documentary filmmaker Nina Gilden-Seavey. She is director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University. She joins us here in our Washington studio.
Ms. NINA GILDEN-SEAVEY (Director, George Washington University Documentary Center): Hello, Michel.
MARTIN: Hi, Nina.
And Angelo Falcon from the Defend The Honor Campaign. He's also president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. He joins us on the phone from his office in New York. Angelo, welcome you to TELL ME MORE.
Mr. ANGELO FALCON (Founding member, Defend The Honor Campaign): Good morning.
MARTIN: Angelo, can we start with you? And I should also start by saying we reached out to Ken Burns, but neither he nor others involved with the film would speak with us. Angelo, for the people who aren't familiar with the issue, why did you care so much about what was in this film?
Mr. FALCON: Well, you know, Ken Burns is an institution in this country. And when he has a project, it's going to be airing on PBS, that we - you know, it's going to have a major impact, I think, on the conversation about whatever issue it is in the country. So when he started promoting the film and showing pieces of it around the country, people and the Latino community started to question and find out - and they found out that of 40 people that were interviewed, there were no Latinos in the film and that the Latino experience in World War II was basically ignored by Ken Burns. And they were, you know, close to as many as 500,000 Latinos who were involved in the war, and it had a tremendous impact on the Latino community, that World War II experience.
And also, I guess the concern that with this immigration debate, all the attacks on Latinos in terms of illegal immigration and all the attacks in terms of the lack of Latino contributions in the American society and how we're harming American society - we don't want to learn how to speak English. All those things, we thought that this experience, Ken Burns' film, would reinforce those kind of images about Latinos not really contributing to American society.
So it really created a tremendous stir within the Latino community in a way that I haven't seen, kind of, emotion about this. We've been getting letters from people who had family members in the war who've made sacrifices. And it's a kind of thing where it really just struck a cord within the Latino community. And again, Ken Burns is just being the icon that he is and the institution that he is…
MARTIN: Actually, Angelo, I want to bring Nina in, but I just briefly want to ask you what changes do you believe will now be made, and are you satisfied with it?
Mr. FALCON: Well, the thing is that, you know, we start the meeting with PBS - the president of PBS, Paula Kerger, back at the beginning of March, where we basically raised the issue with her and initially the PBS told us look, there's absolutely nothing we can do, the film was already in the can. It's completed. There's nothing we can do to the film itself to make it more relevant to the Latino or include Latino experience.
We, you know, went back to the community and it was a lot of pressure put, I think, on PBS and on Ken Burns in terms of public opinion around this issue in terms of Latino community. So what we've been asking is for inclusion of Latinos in the film and were able to get some concessions from PBS and Ken Burns that they would find ways of including the Latino experience in a seamless way within the film and…
MARTIN: And opposed as, say, an additional piece.
Mr. FALCON: …as opposed to, you know, for example, it just - an add on at the very end or some, you know, something stuck in the middle.
MARTIN: So in essence, in your understanding, he is going to re-cut the film.
Mr. FALCON: Well, with - that's the problem, is that we really don't have many details. We have a general idea that Ken Burns finally has said, look, you know, I will make some changes. We're not clear what those changes exactly are as we try to, you know, get the details. So we've written to the president of PBS and have asked her to please, by the end of this month, sit down with us and explain to us what is exactly that they're planning to do so that we can see if it makes any sense in terms of the issues that we were raising.
MARTIN: I see. Nina, how do you react to this?
Ms. GILDEN-SEAVEY: I think this is blasphemy. I cannot believe that they took an independent piece of journalism, screamed loud enough, threatened enough at a time when, obviously, PBS is very politically vulnerable both in Congress, in front of the, you know, sort of, in front of the White House in terms of budget cuts. It seems to me that what you've done is you've open the door for any special interest group to have a voice in any piece of the independent journalism. And I think it's a travesty against journalism.
I think it's an astonishing precedent that you've said, that the issues that you're raising are not ones that anyone would dispute. There's no reason why these Latino voices shouldn't be heard. It's whether they should be heard in this context. And the issue, the president that you've said has allowed not just your own voices to be heard within any, you know, with any of the independent film, but also that of the White Citizens' Council, the National Rifle Association, anybody with whom that you may agree with or you may disagree with. And what you have done is to literally abrogate the bond between independent journalism and the notion of sponsorship in this country and political correctness. And I think it's a travesty.
MARTIN: Well, you've raised a lot of important issues, here, and I think one issue you're raising is the question of funding. And I think part of the argument that hasn't been fully realized is that PBS receives federal funding, and as a consequence of that, some of the advocates said that because this is in part made with tax dollars that citizens have a right to participate in the conversation. But what about Angelo's point, Nina, that Ken Burns is a seminal figure in his telling of the American story, and that when persons are not included in that story, they essentially disappeared. What do you say to that?
Ms. GILDEN-SEAVEY: I say that that's a fiction. Michael Moore is also an icon, and he is now taking his film outside of the United States because George Bush is currently threatening his film. But he is an independent voice, and that Ken Burns would somehow succumb shows a certain amount of backbone, lack of backbone, a certain amount of, you know, sort of favoritism. Look, everybody believes that these stories should be told. There is no reason in the world why it had to be told within this context.
MARTIN: Angelo, we need to hear from you, and I'm afraid that we are shorter on time that I'd like. What about Nina's point? That this is, that this is…
Mr. FALCON: Yeah. Well, I think this is a…
MARTIN: …that you've created a terrible precedent including for people like yourself. I mean, this is…
Mr. FALCON: Well, listen for the Latino community, you know, we're always siding for our inclusion, and we find this kind of exclusionary kind of, you know, approach very, very negative in terms of, you know, talking about the real American experience. So in terms of tragedy, I think the tragedies are really on the other foot. I mean, the tragedy is that Ken Burns and PBS were not sensitive enough to this problem to incorporate, you know, Latino voices as part of America. I think, we probably have…
Ms. GILDEN-SEAVEY: How many Japanese and Chinese Americans people were included in this same thing? Angelo, let…
MARTIN: Okay, Angelo, let…
Mr. FALCON: …we probably have - the folks on the right have attempted to equate what we're doing with censorship. What we're talking about is inclusion. And we're talking about - nobody's talking about taking Ken Burn's vision and changing it as much as saying, look, you should include this other the community, and I think he can make that equivalent.
Ms. GILDEN-SEAVEY: No, that is exactly what you're doing. You're changing his vision.
Mr. FALCON: I think the tragedy is that there are people that would defend this kind of exclusivity, this kind of exclusion of a community that, I think, contributed a lot to this country.
Ms. GILDEN-SEAVEY: Nobody is denying the contribution.
Mr. FALCON: And think that's the biggest problem I have right now, it that…
MARTIN: We're going to have to…
Mr. FALCON: …this attitude is very negative.
MARTIN: Well, we can see. We can see the emotions that are stirred by this story, and I hope that perhaps we'll be able to talk about it again. We're going to have to leave it there. Thank you both for joining us.
We heard from documentary filmmaker Nina Gilden-Seavey. She's director of the documentary center at George Washington University. And we also heard from Angelo Falcon of the Defend the Honor Campaign and president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. Thank you both so much for joining us.
Ms. GILDEN-SEAVEY: Thank you, Michel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.