Advocates Discuss Agreement to Add Hispanic Voice to WWII Film

May 14, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Award-winning documentarian Ken Burns is renowned for his epic PBS films on American history and culture…

DOCUMENTARY NARRATOR: Little Round Top was completely undefended…

JEFFREY BROWN: … including the landmark “Civil War” series, “Baseball,” and “Jazz.” But his latest work, called “The War,” a seven-part series on World War II that’s scheduled to air on PBS later this year, has sparked controversy over what was left out.

The film focuses on four towns and the experiences of individuals within those communities.

DOCUMENTARY SUBJECT: Just things that happened at that time I’ll never forget.

JEFFREY BROWN: But a number of critics and advocacy groups — including the American GI Forum, a Latino veterans’ organization — raised concerns that the series overlooked the contributions of Latinos to the war effort, and pressed both Burns and PBS to make changes.

They also say this is not the first time Burns has excluded Latino contributions in the topics he’s covered. In mid-March, Burns addressed the critique of “The War” on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

KEN BURNS, Documentary Filmmaker: We knew going in we weren’t going to be able to tell the whole story. We were looking for universal human experience of battle, of what was it like to be in that war, and not try to cover every group. We left out lots of people in many, many different kinds of groups, because we weren’t looking at it in the way.

JEFFREY BROWN: That explanation did little to quell passions. And after a meeting in mid-April between Burns, Latino representatives and PBS, Hector Galan, a noted Latino filmmaker, was enlisted to assist burns in producing new material on the efforts of the 500,000 people of Latino descent who fought in the war. But Burns and PBS rejected a central demand of the advocacy groups, that the film be re-edited to include the new material.

Several days later, two members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Joe Baca of California and Ciro Rodriguez of Texas, wrote to PBS President Paula Kerger, “The only appropriate course of action is that the documentary fully incorporate within the body of the documentary the integral role of Hispanics.”

Latino groups also went to corporate sponsors General Motors and Anheuser-Busch with their concerns.

Then late last week came a statement that Burns’ company, Florentine Films, and several Latino groups had reached a new understanding that, quote, “recognizes legitimate Latino concerns about Ken Burns’ upcoming documentary series and equally recognizes that the artistic decisions of what appears in his film are his and his alone to make.”

The statement said that, quote, “The narratives and voices of Hispanic World War II veterans will be incorporated” into the film, but no details were provided on how that would be done.

The main issues

JEFFREY BROWN: And more on all this now from Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, director of the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the founders of the Defend the Honor Campaign, formed to create greater awareness about the World War II Hispanic community.

And Nancy Buirski, CEO, founder and artistic director of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, an annual event in Durham, North Carolina. Ken Burns is a board member of the festival, but Ms. Buirski is not representing him or his production company.

We did ask Ken Burns to join us, but he and other associates declined.

Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, let's start with, what is the main issue here for you?

MAGGIE RIVAS-RODRIGUEZ, University of Texas, Austin: The main issue is the inclusion of Latinos into the nation's historical narrative. Over and over again, Latinos are excluded in any kind of general history accounts of our country.

And some people have regarded it as a paragraph approach to Latino contributions, and that's simply unacceptable at a time when the Latino population is growing. We have figures that over half of the schoolchildren in California are Hispanic.

It's important for all Americans, but in particular it's important for Hispanic children to be able to watch television and understand that the contributions of the Latino people have been many, and we've been here for a very long time. And that's the important thing.

The other part of this issue is that it's so hard for us to understand how, in six and a half years of producing this work, neither Mr. Burns nor anyone at PBS thought about Latinos. It's unconscionable to us how anybody -- and we're not talking just about the Latino experience, but even just a Latino to be included into this documentary.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nancy Buirski, as someone who works with documentary filmmakers, what's the main issue for you?

NANCY BUIRSKI, CEO, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: You know, I think this is a great opportunity to think about what documentary really should deliver to society, what role it plays, and what we expect from it.

I think that there are many people who look at documentary as a historic record, and I know that most documentary filmmakers don't feel that's the case. They usually approach their work with a point of view; some of them approach it more scholarly than others. And I do think that that's one reason that the Latinos have looked at Ken Burns' work, because his work does tend to be more historically sweeping and more scholarly.

But Ken -- and I'm not actually speaking for him, but it's just my observation of his work -- is every bit as artistic as some of the more experimental films that we look at. It may have at its foundation a good deal of history, but it's also a personal film, an artistic film, and it has a point of view.

A 'very personal' film

JEFFREY BROWN: You have seen -- staying with you -- you have seen part of this film, not all, as I understand it. What do you see it representing here? What is he trying to do?

NANCY BUIRSKI: Well, I took away from it a very personal, a very human look at people who go to war and the towns that surround these people. He's basically focused on a handful of soldiers and the people in his life, in their lives, and how they're impacted by a war as violent and as massive as the Second World War.

He follows a number of stories, almost in a novelistic way. And why he chose not to include Latinos in this particular rendition, I really can't say, but I do understand his need to follow the story once he grabbed onto something and wanted to see it through.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how do you respond to that, Professor Rivas-Rodriguez, about the individual vision that he's creating versus a larger history?

MAGGIE RIVAS-RODRIGUEZ: I think that he has every right to create a documentary that's based on his personal vision. The one exception here is that it is going to be broadcast on PBS, and PBS does have a public trust.

No one else is going to have an opportunity to produce a documentary about World War II that's 14-and-a-half hours long. That's just not going to happen. No documentarian is going to have that opportunity. So when you do have this opportunity, you really have to make the most of it and, to that extent, include the stories that really affected all of Americans, because that is how people are looking at this.

They do -- and I agree with Nancy. I do think that, you know, he may look at it as his personal vision. But I think that, out here, people that are not students of documentaries, what they're looking at is they really do see this as history.

And these stories, these documentaries, the DVDs, the books that are based on it, are going to go into public schools around the country. And Latinos continue to be left out of the historical narrative. So this is just going to build on that widespread ignorance about Latino contributions to our country.

Adding material to the film

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, staying with you, so, given that, what do you want to see happen? Should the film, even though it's been completed, should it be re-opened, re-cut? And who would make the final decisions about what goes into the final product?

MAGGIE RIVAS-RODRIGUEZ: I think, according to the PBS guiding principles and the roles and responsibilities that I've seen up on the Web site, PBS does have a responsibility, before it accepts and distributes any documentary, any content, it has to be satisfied that that documentary fulfills all of the obligations, the guidelines that they have.

So PBS really does have a responsibility to look at it for itself. And, you know, I've talked to PBS officials, and I know that their hearts are in the right place. I do think they want to do the right thing. And I would have to say that PBS has to be satisfied that those considerations are being met.

We will be more than happy to. We would be more than happy to, and I speak really simply on behalf of the people that are involved in our little group, Defend the Honor, which is a grassroots group of people from all over the country. And I don't speak for any other Latino organization. But we would be very happy to offer whatever resources and help to Ken Burns and to PBS. And we've extended that hand for a long time.

So we're hoping that they will accept it and that we'll be, you know, able to help them out in whatever way, so that this is something that, on September 23rd, when it does air, that it's something that we can all feel really good about.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Nancy Buirski, is there ever a time to re-open, re-cut a film? And same question that I asked the professor: Who makes the final decision on the final product?

NANCY BUIRSKI: You know, there are many ways of going about making a documentary. And throughout the process, people are usually showing it to others, accepting notes, making changes, and very often changing at various stages.

Apparently, Ken had already locked this film, from what I understand. In spite of that, he seems to have decided to add some material.

I think, Maggie, you probably have heard that there's been a resolution to this, and he is going to go in and bring some of the Latino subjects into the film.

But I think there are a lot of ways to approach when people are omitted and groups feel aggrieved, and one way is to let that film air, and then create discussion and conversation about it. I think it's a great way, actually, to draw attention to groups that have been omitted or overlooked.

And I think that, you know, frankly, this controversy has certainly brought a lot of attention to the Latinos who have been overlooked. And I dare say that it's not going to happen very often, again, in films that are attempting to be sweeping and historic.

But I think that there is a problem in going back to a film once it's been locked, because the careful calibration of editing, and cinematography, and score, and narration is quite delicate, actually. And not only do I commend the Latinos for drawing attention to having been overlooked in this film, but I also commend Ken Burns for agreeing to go back and add material, because I know how difficult that is for a person who's carved out and crafted what he or she may believe is an artistic work.

External pressures to alter film

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you concerned about the pressures that were brought from politicians and, at least reportedly, from some of the sponsors?

NANCY BUIRSKI: I am, actually, because I think it's a slippery slope. I believe that there are a lot of documentary filmmakers today who are concerned and watching this controversy very carefully, because it's going to be a little nervous-making, as they go forward with their own work, trying to figure out who might be either looking at it, looking over their shoulders, or coming back after the film is locked and insisting that they make some changes.

I don't think any of us want that to happen in a civil society. I think we want a good deal of artistic freedom. I think we've all fought very hard for that, and we don't want to see that go away.

I also believe that the whole issue of artistic freedom, of creative license in making documentaries is a critical one for our society. And I would hate to see that argument overshadow the very valid argument that Latinos have about how often they're represented in historical works.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we just have a minute, but, Professor Rivas-Rodriguez, what happens next? If he does go back and re-cuts the film, are you watching carefully to see the final product? Is there a chance that this fight continues?

MAGGIE RIVAS-RODRIGUEZ: Well, I'm hoping that we might have a preview before it airs in September, and I do think that it really has exposed some weaknesses in lots of different systems.

But what one weakness that I have seen is that I really do not understand how PBS, in six-and-a-half years, didn't raise a flag on this. It seems very difficult to understand.

And the other part of it is that Ken Burns received public funding from the National Endowment from the Humanities and several other foundations, and I write grant proposals all the time. And I would like to understand, are we all held to the same standards? Are all of the standards equally applicable to all of us?

Because I know that, when I write a grant proposal, I have to justify why I'm looking at this particular population of people, so I think that we need to look at that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we'll have to leave it there. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, Nancy Buirski, thank you both very much.


NANCY BUIRSKI: You're welcome.