That's one of the excellent points that documentarian Ken Burns makes in the interview running tonight (at 7:30). He and his colleague Lynn Novick were visiting KQED to talk about their upcoming series The War, which will begin airing on PBS in September. Burns of course rose to fame with his series The Civil War, and he talked with me about how he initially resisted returning to the theme of armed conflict. Indeed, talking with them both, I felt as though I could sense the emotional toll that years and years of research into the horrors of war had inflicted.
The series' perspective is a particularly democratic one -- focusing as it does on the experiences of the soldiers themselves, as well as their families. (Burns and Novick felt that the story already had been told many times over from the viewpoint of the leaders.) But with so many potential protagonists, the challenge was to find an organizing principle for their bottom-up narrative. They ended up focusing on four representative American towns and interweaving the stories of how inhabitants of each were affected by the war. Also, they paid particular attention to the searing experiences of Japanese Americans, who were forced into internment camps and then -- amazingly -- recruited from those very camps to fight in the front lines. My wife is Japanese American, and her parents and grandparents were all placed in these camps -- so I confess that I was feeling especially emotional when we discussed this subject.
As guests, Burns and Novick struck me as being especially "present" during the interview -- answering my questions not by rote but with real consideration. (This must be especially challenging when on the kind of whirlwind media tour that Burns's success has engendered.) Their emotional openness, in turn, made me feel okay about my own shakiness as I tried to consider the unthinkable suffering endured in this war that I believe was "just" but agree with Burns was not -- could not possibly have been -- "good."
April 9th, 2007