Filmmaker Dodges Criticism, Refuses to Alter 'War' Ken Burns has drawn criticism in the past for omissions to his PBS series on baseball and jazz. Now the documentary filmmaker is drawing fire for leaving Hispanics and Native Americans out of his 14-hour World War II story.
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Filmmaker Dodges Criticism, Refuses to Alter 'War'

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Filmmaker Dodges Criticism, Refuses to Alter 'War'

Filmmaker Dodges Criticism, Refuses to Alter 'War'

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


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.


BLOCK: 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.

KEN BURNS: For some reason, it has come to me that I'm definitive. We've made a film, which is for the first time in my professional life, not even trying to be definitive or comprehensive and hundreds, thousands, millions of stories are not going to be told.

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 have either seen excerpts or read the script, there are no Latinos or Native Americans included in the documentary.

ALFRED GALVAN: 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.

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

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

XAVIER BECERRA: 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 they should use 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 says there are issues of representation if Latinos are excluded from the documentary but...

LUIS ORTIZ: 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 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 fodder for Hispanic bloggers, listservs, radio hosts and newspaper editorials. Rafael Ventura-Rosa has a law degree from Yale and is in the Latin music business as an artist manager. On a Latin music listserv, he suggested Hispanics should fund, produce and distribute their own cultural expression rather than, quote, "nitpicking with others about how to tell Latino stories."

RAFAEL VENTURA: If we've got a story to tell, we should go out 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 welcomed the discussions and was anxious to hear the Hispanic point of view on World War II.

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 stories.

CONTRERAS: Felix Contreras, NPR News.

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