Historical documentarian Ken Burns describes career path, current endeavors

Story by Bailey Brammer | Broadcast Managing Editor, Video by Julia Lawrenz | Broadcast Reporter

For more than 40 years, award-winning filmmaker and documentarian Ken Burns has explored defining historical moments and subjects such as the American Civil War, baseball and jazz music, among many others.

Burns spoke to Baylor students, faculty, staff and Waco community members on Monday afternoon in Waco Hall about the importance of American history, as well as the overarching questions that have popped up in each of his films: “Who are we? Where did we come from? What have we become? Where are we going?”

The lecture was part of Baylor’s Beall-Russell Lectures in Humanities series, which was created in 1982 by Muncie, Ind., native Virginia B. Ball with a financial gift. Ball found inspiration for the series from her mother, Mrs. John A. Beall, and Lily Russell, former dean of women at Baylor, both of whom were Baylor alumnae in 1910. Past speakers include Pulitzer-Prize-winning historians Isabel Wilkerson and David McCullough.

“I read the novelist Richard Powers the other day and he said this remarkable sentence,” Burns said. “We’re in a country filled with arguments –– that’s all we hear all day is arguments –– from the left, from the right, from the center, from over there, from over here, wherever it is. He said the best arguments in the world won’t change a single mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

After his lecture, Burns sat down with David Smith, senior lecturer of history, for a question and answer session on-stage. Audience members had the opportunity to submit questions for Burns by using the hashtag #KenBurnsBU on Twitter.

Burns discussed his upcoming documentaries on topics such as the history of country music, Ernest Hemingway, President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Vietnam War and others. These projects will span well into the next decade.

Burns said he decided to become a filmmaker when he was 12-years-old. He said his mother died after being sick for more than 10 years, and his father, who never showed much emotion, cried while watching a movie with him shortly after her death. Burns said that film provided his father with a safe harbor for his feelings, and knew from then on that he wanted to pursue filmmaking.

“A lot of people are drawn to film because of its attractiveness, its glamour …” Burns said, “It’s really hard work. We are trying to do something and a lot of people get into it and they go ‘This isn’t for me.’ And there’s no shame in that. I used to sit with two three-ring binders on my desk … and they all had several hundred rejections from my very first film on the Brooklyn Bridge. I just kept them as a reminder that you do not get there from being discouraged the first time anybody blows you down.”

Dr. Kimberly Kellison, associate dean of humanities and social sciences, serves as co-chair of the Beall-Russell lecture series committee with Alden Smith, associate dean of the Honors College. Kellison said Baylor has been interested in having Burns speak for a number of years, and the committee looks for lecturers who value and work within the humanities.

“I think what he conveys is that history is about prominent people but also about every person’s story,” Kellison said. “He just epitomizes that. We have to understand our common stories and how they altogether comprise the American experience.”

Burns said the biggest piece of advice he can offer young professionals who want to make their words and actions count is to continue trying, even when it gets difficult.

“For what I do, there’s no career path,” Burns said. “Everybody I know in who’s working in documentary has arrived at it from their completely unique way. Then you go back to old human truths about perseverance and about knowing who you are. This is what I want to do. I do have something to say. I do know how I want to say it, I do know how I want to talk about it.”