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'The Central Park Five:' Ken Burns Returns to the Scene of the Crime

The Central Park Five, the latest documentary from the Ken Burns family, re-examines the tragic account of five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park nearly a quarter of a century ago. All these years later, it’s still hard to figure how everyone—from the police to the courts to the media—got it so wrong.

October 10, 1990: Kharey Wise as he looked in court when he was arraigned in the Central Park jogger rape case. Photo by John Pedin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.

The two-hour documentary was written, directed and produced by Ken Burns, daughter Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, Sarah’s husband. Chief cinematographer was Buddy Squires, whose cinematography has been featured in nearly all of Ken Burns’ films. After its premiere as an Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival last spring and subsequent good reviews at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals this fall, it will be shown at the IFC Center in NYC’s Greenwich Village on Nov. 23. It will air nationally on PBS next April, and a limited theater run (rare for a Burns project) is also possible.

In the early morning of April 20, 1989, a severely beaten woman was found in a remote section of Central Park several hours after being attacked. Her wounds were so grave that she was expected to soon die, or at best remain in a coma. She defied doctors and recovered, for the most part. (Her vision and balance were never fully restored.) Fourteen years after the incident, Trisha Meili revealed herself as the victim when she wrote a book in 2003. She still has no memory of the brutal attack.

Yusef Salaam and the directors of The Central Park Five: (from left) David McMahon, Sarah Burns, Yusef Salaam and Ken Burns.

If she had remembered anything, Meili could have warned a heavily pressured police department, a competitive press seemingly out for blood, and the court system that the “confessions” of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam following grueling interrogations were bogus. Compelling evidence was also lacking.

The documentary, inspired by the 2011 Sarah Burns book The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, presents the systemic injustice served on the five “assailants” from their point of view. After serving their respective prison sentences (ranging from five to 13 years), the convictions of the five boys—tried as adults—were vacated in 2002 after DNA evidence and a confession from Matias Reyes cleared their names.

For the filmmakers, the harrowing subject matter provided storytelling challenges. Most of their films are punctuated by the use of archival beauty shots of landscapes or, for example, “some time-lapse sunrise or sunset footage of the Grand Tetons when we were doing the National Parks films,” says McMahon. “But with this story, there is no timeless beauty to a dark corner of Central Park in the middle of the night, or of a police precinct.”

Cinematographer Buddy Squires films in Central Park.

Veteran cinematographer Buddy Squires used a HD tape-based Panasonic VariCam AJ-HDC27H to capture the 20 interviews shot for the film. New park footage was captured on Super 16 film, as well as some Super 8. Squires used an Aaton A-Minima Super 16mm film camera with Canon zoom lenses (8-64mm and 11-165mm), Zeiss Super Speed primes and a Canon 300mm lens. For an elaborate opening sequence he used the Steadicam he’s owned for many years with the Aaton.

“What we shot was a hybrid of digital video and Super 16 film,” Squires says. “We did a lot of nighttime shooting and some day-for-night. We shot other material, such as landscapes, cityscapes and psychologically suggestive scenes, with the Aaton. Sometimes we worked at slower frame rates to get more exposure. We did some off-speed stuff, some time lapse and some slow motion up to maybe 60 frames. We used pretty much every trick in the book,” Squires says.

Ken and Sarah Burns and McMahon researched virtually all available archival material. “We found footage taken of the crime scene and of interrogations that had been taped in the precinct, and then used it to gauge how it might ‘inform’ some of the scenes that we shot—such as re-creations without actors of what an interrogation might have looked like back in 1989,” McMahon says. “The archival material was all over the map as far as quality and source. We had archival stills, newspapers, 16mm film, some VHS [tape] and even some 35mm film.”

McMahon says they were surprised to find an abundance of footage shot only hours after the assault. “They had police combing the crime scene the morning after the incident... helicopters buzzing overhead... the press being held at bay... a couple of police interviews and other activity. We could really paint a picture of that moment using the archival footage, but we still had to spend many hours shooting new footage while trying to capture a kind of haunted sense of the state of things where this crime took place,” says McMahon. “We had the five boys—now men, of course—describe the various things they were doing in the park that we had to reconstruct step by step.”