Why Ken Burns Is Our Pick for Documentarian of the Year

Why Ken Burns Is Our Pick for Documentarian of the Year

Nov 28, 2012

Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week we celebrate a master of nonfiction filmmaking for his two brand new documentary works.

It will be a great irony if The Central Park Five is nominated for an Academy Award. The film, about a handful of young men in NYC who wrongfully went to prison for a rape they didn’t commit, has earned tons of raves and Oscar buzz, the latter now increased with yesterday’s news that it’s nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Whether it deserves to be recognized by the Academy for its quality isn’t as important as whether one of its filmmakers will be viewed as either due for an Oscar or unworthy on account of he’s so prominently known for television work.

That filmmaker is Ken Burns, who codirected CP5 with his daughter, Sarah Burns, making her debut behind the camera as an expert on the case and author of a book about the subjects, and producer David McMahon, who is also better known for collaborating with the elder Burns on PBS miniseries like The War and The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Even this new film was made in part by and for PBS, but it’s different than most of Ken Burns’ documentaries and the filmmaker decided to seek a theatrical release due to its “manageable” running time and the belief that “there’s something urgent about it.”

While one level of the film is historical account, CP5 is also more of an issue film than we expect from Burns. It actually fits quite well against other systemic issue films with great Oscar potential this year, namely West of Memphis, The Invisible War, The House I Live In and Scenes of a Crime. And in a tweet last Friday, Michael Moore included the film among a handful of docs to see in theaters over the holiday weekend. Moore is, of course, a major player in the Academy and its documentary branch, having gotten the award category’s rules changed this year with the intention of Oscar nominations going to films made primarily for the big screen, not television.

Burns has actually been nominated for an Oscar twice, for his other NYC-focused films, Brooklyn Bridge and The Statue of Liberty, but for the latter he also earned his first Primetime Emmy Award nod and in the 27 years since the film’s release he’s been recognized by the TV Academy over and over instead. Of course, this is mainly due to his work consisting more of documentary miniseries like The Civil War, Jazz and Baseball rather than features. And it’s very likely that, Oscar nomination or not, Burns will get another Emmy nomination for CP5 following its television premiere.

Depending on when it debuts on the small screen, though, CP5 could have some competition from Burns’ other new documentary, which I consider to be his best yet, The Dust Bowl. The two-part miniseries premiered on PBS November 18, five days before the opening of CP5, and was immediately also released on DVD and Blu-ray last Tuesday. I think it was strange for both to arrive around the same time, especially because The Dust Bowl’s earlier bow may have been a reminder that Burns’ home is in your home, not the cinema. CP5 opened decently yet not remarkably on three screens in NYC, but reportedly many of the shows concluded with standing ovations from those in attendance.

Either way you see these films, they’re both impressive works from a man who has been this generation’s leading documentarian when it comes to the function of nonfiction films to teach us a history lesson. Both CP5 and The Dust Bowl offer chronicles of past events, the former one of the biggest and now most infamous crimes and trials in New York ever, the latter a decade-long disaster that ravaged a huge section of America in the 1930s and drastically changed the country’s agriculture moving forward. While not too comparable in significance or purpose, The Dust Bowl has finally, after 75 years, given us a comprehensive documentary to put on the shelf next to Pare Lorentz’s classic The Plow That Broke the Plains (which is discussed in the new film). It’s a little-known and terribly tragic history -- especially for all the kids who died as a result of the perpetual “black blizzard” dust storms -- and needed this excellent treatment.

And with its firsthand accounts from interviewee storytellers who were just children during the events (and who saw brothers and sisters perish from dust pneumonia), some of them who’ve passed on since filming began, The Dust Bowl couldn’t have been produced so perfectly any later than now. Yet that’s not the only reason it’s such a pertinent film for this moment in time. It’s difficult to watch Burns’ miniseries and not draw connections to our present, as the history of the Dust Bowl is a history of a man-made ecological catastrophe not unlike the climate change contributing to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. It’s also set during the Great Depression, providing us relevance through our own era of economic decline.

Ultimately, what we have to learn from this history (but so far haven’t) is that overreaching and overindulging in anything, including financial and environmental areas, can only be harmful to ourselves and our world. By the time of a final address of irrigation concerns, which easily parallel the issues of any other natural resource exhaustion, Burns has made a subtle yet strong point about the world we live in today. With his collaborators, he similarly touches on modern problems with CP5, a film that tackles ongoing and increased faults with the media, the judicial system and a perpetually prejudiced society (see my short review from TIFF here). Also, CP5 has brought the case back into the news and limelight in a way it deserves, leading to a controversial reaction from the City of New York.

Neither of these documentaries are the most pressing of the year, issue-wise, nor the most engaging, narrative-wise. I think only The Dust Bowl will make my top 10 if I even decide to allow for a TV miniseries. But between them, their quality as well-researched histories and simultaneously more broadly concerned works of crucial contemporary cultural matters has me thinking that collectively they elevate their shared director to a certain place above other nonfiction filmmakers this year. Regardless of what Oscars or Emmys or other accolades he’ll receive from these two efforts, I’d like to recognize Ken Burns as the documentarian of 2012.




In Theaters

Beware of Mr. Baker (Jay Bulger) - As I noted in a dispatch from SXSW, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, this biographical profile on legendary drummer Ginger Baker (Cream, Blind Faith) is a “wild, funny and richly textured audio-visual treat of a film” that’s appealing for “the same reasons other foul-mouthed, curmudgeonly subjects make for entertaining docs.” Comparing it to other noteworthy music films of this year (to Bulger’s chagrin), particularly Searching for Sugar Man, Hit So Hard, Under African Skies, Last Days Here and Paul Williams Still Alive, I then and now claim Baker to be “without a doubt the most fun.” Now playing at Film Forum in NYC.

Only the Young (Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet) - I’m quoted in this film’s trailer (the credit only notes Movies.com), so that both means I obviously like it and its marketers are obviously smart people. As I wrote in a True/False dispatch on this doc, which was just nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, “Everything about Only the Young is amazing” … ”the most genuinely honest and heartfelt teen movie since John Hughes (and Say Anything) -- and not because it’s real, either.” Focused on the friendships of a trio of evangelical skate punks, it’s “a timeless coming-of-age story that admirably doesn’t harp on any of the religious, sub-cultural, sexual, temporal or regional aspects of the characters’ lives.” I guarantee you’ll love it. Opens next Friday in NYC with other cities to follow through January. See the other release dates here.

Tchoupitoulas (Bill and Turner Ross) - From the guys who brought us the excellent town portrait 45365, this fabulous follow-up focuses on a night in New Orleans through the eyes of a set of three young brothers. And it is possibly one of the greatest virtual trips I’ve ever been on, although some of this is because I’ve been to the city before and felt transported back to relive my past experiences there while also taking part in a new adventure. In another SXSW dispatch, I wrote, “the Ross brothers deliver a travelogue that I think immerses you in the place, as well as in a certain age or ages, to where you should be satisfied with the filmic experience of a city that is so very old and so very adult yet also so very magical and playful.” Opens next Friday in NYC with other cities to follow through December. See the other release dates here.

Home Video

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman) - I’ve written much on this site and elsewhere about this documentary about the famous Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, who now seems to be growing in popularity via his “Gangnam Style” parody/tribute videos. In one column, I called it “the greatest superhero movie of the summer.” In another on the Human Rights Watch Film Fest, I wrote, “Funny, irreverent and profoundly in tune with being of and about the power of different media today, this is one rare human-rights-issue doc that the kids are going to think is awesome. I keep selling it as the coolest art world doc since Exit Through the Gift Shop, but it’s so much more necessary than that.” Available on DVD and Blu-ray beginning next Tuesday.


I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog

Categories: Documentary
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