Ken Burns helps viewers appreciate our history and heroes in a deeply personal way. For someone who has spent a career creating documentaries on the most legendary people and events of American history, he has become a legend himself. And no one is more surprised by his success than he is.
“I just assumed that by doing documentary films on PBS about American history, I was taking a vow of anonymity and poverty,” Burns said. “Forty-two years later, I’m still at it, still live in the very same house, and have stayed within myself in my desire to share these glorious topics with the world.”
From his still youthful appearance, it can be difficult to believe Burns has been around for as long as he has; but age has only fueled his determination to tell as many great stories as he can.
“I am 68 now, and I am greedy,” Burns said. “I’m working on eight projects right now, and that’s more than ever. One is on Benjamin Franklin, which goes into the history of the American Revolution. Another covers the U.S. and the Holocaust. As I get older, I see so many stories I want to tell. I am as enthusiastic now, maybe more, as I was when I was working on my first film.”
Burns connects with viewers in a way few other documentarians ever have. He believes the reason has to do with his purpose in creating such memorable films. Where many documentary makers try to convince the viewer to agree with their position, Burns says he is simply trying to engage the viewer through the art of storytelling.
“The best arguments in the world won’t change a single person’s point of view,” Burns said. “The only thing that can do that is a good story. People say, ‘Who’s your audience,’ and I say, ‘Everybody.’ That’s public television’s mandate. I leave my politics at the door and present complicated stories that I hope invite people in. They’re not hearing an argument; they’re pulled into a compelling story.”
Not only is there much to learn from Burns’ films, there is also much to learn from the filmmaker himself.
“I think my story would reinforce the idea that it is possible out of tragedy, humble beginnings, and difficult circumstances to overcome them and make a difference in the lives of others,” he said. “I knew early on that I wanted to make documentaries on American history, and so many things lined up and fell into place. I’ve been very fortunate.”