Ken Burns Discussion

We enjoyed a memorable July gathering with Ken Burns and over 100 of our Legacy community members, including several of our venture capital partners. We were inspired by Ken’s uplifting perspective and his thoughts on film as a vehicle to leverage impact. We considered opportunities for philanthropists to punch above their weight through this medium, leveraging film to expand the impact of their work and raise awareness. We also discussed generational differences in content consumption, the balance between scale and high quality, and the power of story, art, and music to transport an audience.

Here are a few of our key takeaways from the conversation:

Ken began by citing Mark Twain’s assertion that history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes 

  • Ken noted the Old Testament perspective from Ecclesiastes: “What has been done will be done again, what has been will be again. There is nothing new under the sun.”
  • Human nature never changes and “superimposes itself over the seemingly random chaos of events.”
  • History doesn’t repeat, it’s just human nature manifesting itself in the current circumstances—so in telling our history, stories are always contemporary.

Revisiting historical stories, where the passage of time has reduced polarization, engenders stories that are watched not only by the “choir”

  • The panic of the moment can tend toward one particular polarity or another.
  • Themes are often true at the start of Ken’s productions, and are true and rhyming 10+ years later when the film is released.
  • For instance, the Dust Bowl story doesn’t say “climate change” but it’s all about climate change. Ken cited the Dust Bowl as the single most destructive man-made ecological disaster in the world, soon to be surpassed by climate change.
  • The Vietnam story chronicles mass demonstrations taking place across the country, a White House administration obsessed with leaks, accusations that a political campaign reached out during a national election to a foreign power to influence that election… One might think you could be talking about today’s events, but the Vietnam film was started over ten years ago and finished production prior to the last election.
  • Baseball is a perpetually “perfect” lens through which to see the good and bad of who we are as Americans.
  • “A good story, is a good story, is a good story. At the end of the day, it’s the only thing—particularly in a society where all we are doing is arguing. We need to go back to our basic DNA, which is the communication of a story.”

Ken is “in the business of unum” – new digital platform: Unum

  • “We’ve got too much pluribus and not enough unum.” – historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
  • A new platform, Unum, enables the capture of enduring themes of race, leadership, war, hard times, art, innovation, a divided nation, immigration…
  • Unum curates these clips of various themes, supporting a continued conversation with current voices—a huge library of moments to cross-reference American history.
  • Much of our loss of civil and civics discourse, as a society, comes from not understanding what our history is, or who our representatives are.

“Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time”

  • 1+1=3… Step back and we can see that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Effective storytelling can engage our fellow citizens in conversation beyond the binary arguments that seem to divide us today.
  • When we’re preoccupied, things are black or white, left or right, we don’t see things.
  • “None of us are getting out of this alive!” But instead of giving up, we raise children, gardens, write symphonies. There is something that is bigger than us and that is what the story should be about.

Generational differences in content consumption

  • “In the end, all meaning accrues in duration—the work and relationships you care most about have benefited from your sustained attention.”
  • PBS in classrooms across the country helps to distribute this content widely.
  • A reason for Unum and refining educational outreach is to continue to arrest attentions.
  • People are starved, particularly in today’s tsunami of content, for curation.

Scaling to produce more films, while maintaining high quality and detail

  • Ken has trained a team he can rely on—so he doesn’t need to do everything himself.
  • There are economies of scale in the “hunter-gathering” components to this—can cull content from the national archives for multiple projects in tandem.

Ken is interested in “listening to the voices of a true, honest, complicated past that’s unafraid of controversy and tragedy”

  • He is equally drawn to stories and moments that encourage a faith in the human spirit and acknowledge the role the U.S. seems to play in the “positive progress of humankind.”
  • Ken’s work is not governed by whims of a sponsor, but by the underwriters—there is a complete separation of church and state (of funders and producers).
  • Wants to tell the MLK story, and has been engaged by MLK’s family, but will only tell the story with warts and all—and the family isn’t yet ready for that.

What is it about story, like art and music, that has the power to transport us?

  • As humans, we aren’t looking for propaganda, nostalgia, or sentimentality—we’re after higher emotions.
  • When the levels of story represent the complexity of the human condition, that’s the story we want to hear.