The United States must reconcile with the darker parts of its history to confront current political and social issues, according to accomplished documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
Burns, famous for his multi-episodic documentary series, discussed his past and present projects with Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) on Feb. 27. His most recent documentary miniseries, “Country Music,” premiered on the Public Broadcasting Service in September 2019. The event, a discussion of immigration issues in the United States, touched on Burns’ lengthy career of curating U.S. history in his films.
At the event, Burns discussed his new historical film project with PBS, UNUM, a reference to the motto of the United States, “e pluribus unum,” the Latin phrase for “out of many, one.” Hopefully, the new project will enrich conversations about the lasting significance of events in U.S. history, Burns said.
“Every time we finish a film we can’t help but hear its resonance in the present,” Burns said. “I think that it’s the deepening of these conversations which I’m after and trying to celebrate in this new form of UNUM.”
UNUM compiles film clips about various events, people and topics throughout U.S. history in separate educational video series, according to the PBS website. Burns’ latest collaboration comes as the most recent step in a storied four-decade filmmaking career. His films and documentary series have been honored with dozens of major awards, including 15 Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards and two Oscar nominations.
A separate discussion with Burns and Georgetown College Dean Christopher Celenza was held earlier in the day in Riggs Library.
Historians should tell U.S. history by including more diverse perspectives without deleting any community’s narratives, according to Burns.
“We have to find a way to tell our stories, and for the longest time our stories have only been a white male narrative,” Burns said. “It has been presidential nominations punctuated by wars. That doesn’t work anymore, but you don’t throw that out; it’s still there. It coexists with all of the bottom-up stories and the million heroic acts.”
Common themes run throughout U.S. history, but today’s issues are unlike anything the nation has seen before, according to Burns.
“Things occur and reoccur. We are very fond of saying that history repeats itself; it does not. It’s not true. Mark Twain is supposed to have said ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes,’” Burns said. “We are in a historical moment that is actually very different than previous generations and that actually goes beyond party or office.”
The event, titled “Immigration: Views on Liberty,” took place in the Lohrfink Auditorium. DeGioia hosted the event alongside the Better Angels Society, a nonprofit organization educating the public about U.S. history. The discussion was followed by a panel with Georgetown professors.
The panel included professors Katherine Benton-Cohen, Richard Boyd, Ricardo Ortiz and Andrew Ian Schoenholtz, who joined Celenza to discuss current immigration policy in relation to the selected clips from Burns’ films.
In his closing remarks, Burns said his films, which seek to tell the truth about the past, not only encompass stories about the United States but also describe the essence of the nation.
“I’d like to say that the films that I have made have all been about the U.S., but they have also been about the corresponding two-letter lowercase plural pronoun: us,” Burns said.