I attended the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) this past weekend. Ken Burns, who was raised in Ann Arbor by a college professor dad, and claims to have seen his “first breasts” on the screen of the Michigan Theatre was also present. The festival is internationally known for showcasing experimental filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, Barbara Hammer and Pat O’Neill, whose work was featured this year. Historical documentaries by Burns, which cover a good swath of American history and are used in educational settings around the globe, are not typically included in the experimental or underground film categories.
Burns has fond memories of AAFF—even if his films are not often in the lineup—and gives a large cash award every year. But this year a Burns film was included, one he co-produced with daughter Sarah Burns and son-in-law David McMahon---“The Central Park Five.” This well-reviewed film offers an investigation into the systematic injustice faced by five young men wrongly accused in 1989 of a brutal rape attack in Central Park. As the film details, these five black and Latino teenagers were rounded up and harshly pressured by the police—with no lawyer present--to confess to a crime and/or point to a friend’s guilt in order for the intimidation to stop. All five gave conflicting stories and were videotaped accusing each other, even while none of their DNA matched the crime scene and the actual rapist was later caught after raping another woman nearby. The five boys went to prison, serving sentences between six and thirteen years, before the actual rapist confessed.
Sarah Burns could not attend the festival, so Papa Burns stood in. He proudly and, at times, defensively answered questions about his own work and his daughter’s. Burns made clear that it was his daughter’s outrage at the injustice of the Central Park case, discovered while working as an undergraduate at Yale University, that drove her to forego law school, write a book about the case, and work with her father and husband to cover this story in a style that is more similar to Errol Morris or Andrew Jarecki than to a “Ken Burns” film with closely-watched photographs and celebrity actor voiceovers.
One young woman in the audience stood up and stated to Burns, “I don’t really consider myself a feminist..”— as audience members yelled, “It’s O.K. to be a feminist!”--“but,” she continued, “I’ve noticed that there are not many women in your films.” Burns paused for a moment before pointing to his documentary about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, which has not received as much press attention as his "Civil War," "Baseball" or "Jazz" series, as well as other moments in his historical films that include women (“The Roosevelts” is forthcoming…). Burns added that he did consider himself a feminist--(the audience cheered)--particularly since he is the father of four daughters, one of whom initiated this award-winning film.
The emotion following the screening of “The Central Park Five” was matched by the presence of Raymond Santana, one of the five accused boys, who is now committing time and travel to advocating for the Innocence Project. Santana and the other four boys have been waiting for over twelve years since being released from prison for legal compensation from New York City for the mishandling of their case. Burns, his daughter and her husband McMahon have assumed legal costs for the case while their notes and outtakes from the film were subpoenaed for the lawsuit against the city. (Subpoena was fortunately rejected.) The Burns are working for just compensation for the five boys as well as for a change in the law requiring the videotaping of entire interrogation sessions for anyone who is underage and accused of a crime.
As Burns said to the Michigan audience, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” And quoting Frederick Douglass, “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate.”
The Civil War was not won by photographs alone…