Whenever I attend a really cool event, I’m reluctant to blog about it, afraid my pithy words won’t properly extol the awesomeness of the experience. Such was the case a few Thursdays ago when I volunteered to help with the screening of Ken Burns’ latest documentary The War. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and since I’m a documentary lover and fan of Ken Burns, it was all I could do to keep from rushing the podium during his speech and asking him for a lock of hair.
The original plan was to give the audience a taste by showing seven snippets from the 14-hour epic, followed by a Q & A with Ken Burns. The screening appropriately took place at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, a great space lined with high windows. Unfortunately, there aren’t shades for the windows so the lingering daylight made the room too light to show the clips right away. Until it was dark enough, KB chatted about the documentary and his experiences making it.
Before I saw him, I imagined KB a hardened, stalwart fellow but instead found a soft-spoken, gracefully-aging, almost boyish creature. He spoke for nearly an hour without a single note or cheat sheet but it was clear that each sentence he uttered had been carefully planned, refined, and memorized. I was especially struck when he used “avuncular” in a sentence, which is generally the type of expression that requires a bit of planning before it can be dropped into conversation. I had no clue what “avuncular” meant, but developed a foggy notion based on the context and made certain I remembered the word to look it up later. He used it to explain the type of interview subject he wanted to avoid using in his project. For The War, he insisted on firsthand accounts resulting from an unfettered, organic interview process as opposed to formal interviews with scholarly, withdrawn experts interspersed with Uncle Clem’s sweet-but-exxagerated tales.
In order to tell the story of The Great War, KB and his colleagues identified four major geographical regions of the United States and randomly selected one town in each area to visit and dig into for WWII stories and experiences. No researches were employed, instead KB and his partners did all the legwork themselves, and found a beautiful, complex story unfolding before their eyes. They had no agenda to cater to but instead let the participants’ stories guide the film’s narrative.
The filmmakers painstakingly restored original footage and recordings to build a library of sights and sounds to accompany the powerful accounts. Incredible musicians added to the mix as well. Wynton Marsalis’ trumpeting conveyed what could not be expressed with words. At the end of the film, Norah Jones sings a simple, poignant song called American Anthem, which is indescribably moving.
KB noted that more than 1000 WWII vets die each day. The enormity of that fact shocked me. Later, when all the WWII vets in the audience stood, I found myself moved to tears. I realized how little attention I’ve paid to their unimaginable sacrifices, the results of which make it possible for me to lazily blog from my comfortable office. It also made me realize that if we don’t ask, we’re rapidly loosing fascinating details of a time in history that changed the world.
When asked why he makes films, KB mentioned his love for history and said he’d been extremely close with his Mother, who died when he was young. He then revealed a suggestion his friend had offered – that he’s dedicated his life to bringing the past alive, to waking the dead by telling their tales and perhaps his drive to do so is reasoned upon his continued desire to reconnect with his Mother.
I didn’t think to bring note-taking material with me so I don’t have as many details as I’d like to share with you but suffice it to say, the snippets I saw were singularly mind-blowing. I cannot wait to see the entire film, which here in Indy, airs at 8 p.m. from September 23rd through October 2.
The minute the screening ended, the entire audience erupted into booming applause and jumped to their feet. I felt like there wasn’t enough noise I could make to convey to KB how impressed I was with his work.
P.S. Don Kramer volunteered too and he got to wear a very sassy, crisp black apron.
P.P.S. I didn’t get no stinkin’ apron! Hmph.