, September 16, 2002-Ken Burns will receive the InternationalDocumentary Association (IDA) 2002 Career Achievement Award. Thepresentation will be made during the 18th Annual IDA Awards GalaBenefit here on December 13 at the Directors Guild of America Theatre.It will highlight a series of activities commemorating the 20thAnniversary of the IDA.
“Ken Burns is in a relatively early stage of his career toreceive this acknowledgement from his peers,” says IDA PresidentMichael Donaldson, “but he has already compiled an exceptionalbody of work that will stand the test of time. Ken has found innovativeways to dig deep into the roots of our society and tell stories thatmake an enduring impression. He has succeeded with his integrity as afilmmaker intact, and that makes him a great role model for everyfilmmaker.”
Burns has produced 19 documentaries beginning with BrooklynBridge in 1980. He earned an Oscar nomination for that effort andhas subsequently received an array of Emmy, Peabody, People’sChoice and other awards and tributes. His eclectic body of workincludes The Civil War, Huey Long, The Statue of Liberty, Baseball,The West, Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery,Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Not For Ourselves Alone: TheStory of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Jazz, TheShakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God, Empire of the Air: The Men WhoMade Radio and Mark Twain. Many of his films have also beendistributed in DVD and other home video formats, and several areaugmented by companion books.
Burns, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, grew up primarily in AnnArbor, Michigan. He enrolled at Hampshire College in Amherst,Massachusetts, intending to pursue a career in narrative filmmaking.His interest in documentaries was sparked by still photographs taken byhis teachers, Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes, who taught him therecould be more drama in history than fiction.
He worked as a freelance cameraman after graduating from HampshireCollege in 1975. Burns says he didn’t look for a job aftergraduation, because he “perhaps naively” wanted to choosethe projects he was going to work on. As a result, he lived in“poverty and obscurity,” but he was his own master at thedawn of his career. He credits a book containing history and picturesdocumenting the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge with sparking hisinterest in that story. In addition to the Oscar nomination,Brooklyn Bridge also attracted large PBS (Public BroadcastingService) audiences.
“Ken Burns has proved the public will respond to documentariesthat enlighten and entertain them,” says IDA Executive DirectorSandra Ruch. “Ken’s success in connecting with millions ofviewers during his career has created opportunities for other seriousdocumentary filmmakers. His films have at times captivated the country,and opened doors for audiences to re-examine history.”
Burns has directed 18 of his films, shared cinematography credits on19 and co-authored four. In a 1998 interview, he commented, “Myancestor, poet Robert Burns, wrote that the gift of seeing ourselves asothers see us is a process of discovery. People try to label me as anhistorian, but I’m not interested in excavating dry dates, factsand events of the past. I’m a filmmaker interested in the art ofthe documentary and the resonance given off by the collision of images,ideas and words. I’m passionate about discovering what it meansto be an American. I’m searching for the emotions that motivatedour predecessors. That’s what makes history worthknowing.”
Cinematographer Buddy Squires, who has collaborated with Burns onall his films since they met at Hampshire College, observes, “Youcan’t overstate his influence. There was no History Channel andfew history programs before Ken decided he wanted to make a film aboutthe Brooklyn Bridge. His success has created opportunities for otherfilmmakers. Working with Ken is an amazing experience. He knows exactlywhat he wants to do, but he also gives me-and everyone else who workswith him-the opportunity to be yourself and make contributions.It’s always about finding the decisive moment when he can revealthe essence of truth.”
Burns currently has two films on the front burner:Horatio’s Drive which follows the first cross-countryautomobile trip; and Jack Johnson, a portrait of the complicatedboxer who became the first African American heavyweight champion. HisNew Hampshire-based company, Florentine Films, is also deep into theprocess of re-mastering his entire body of work. The original 16 mmfilm is being scanned and color-timed using the latest telecine tools.Burns explains that advances in film to digital conversion andtelevision display technologies have made it possible to present subtlenuances in colors, contrast and sound that are integral to theemotional content of the stories he is telling.
“I hope that other filmmakers are paying attention,”says Squires, “because Ken is demonstrating that films, whichhave something important to say, should be produced and preserved as alegacy for the future. I believe decades and centuries from now, peoplewill see these films and say that’s what it was like being inAmerica in those days.”
PBS, which originally programmed all his films, is launching aweekly retrospective series called Ken Burns American Stories onSeptember 22. The screening of the original films will be augmentedwith insightful new discussions with Burns. A comprehensive programschedule is posted on a companion website (www.pbs.org/kenburns/).
Burns joins an eclectic group of IDA Career Achievement Awardrecipients, including filmmakers Ricky Leacock, Albert Maysles,Frederick Wiseman, Henry Hampton, Robert Drew, Marcus Ophuls, JacquesYves Cousteau, Charles Guggenheim, Jean Rouch, David Wolper and MichaelApted. The award was also presented to Walter Cronkite, Bill Moyers,Fred Friendly, Sheila Nevins and Ted Turner, recognizing theircontributions to enabling documentarians to tell their stories.
IDA traces its roots to an informal meeting of a dozen filmmakers inLos Angeles in 1982. They felt there was a need for a non-profitorganization that could serve as a forum where non-fiction filmmakerscould share ideas and discuss and advocate issues of common interest.IDA has some 2,500 members in 50 countries today. 2002 marks theIDA’s 20th year celebrating the documentary.
The annual IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Awards aredesigned to acknowledge and inspire the pursuit of excellence. Kodakhas sponsored the awards ceremonies since their inception in 1984. Formore information or to purchase tickets to the 2002 IDA DistinguishedDocumentary Achievement Awards visit the IDA website (www.documentary.org) orcall 213-534-3600.