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Iconic Filmmaker Ken Burns Speaks at Brookdale

Nearly 2,000 students, employees and community members packed into the Collins Arena on Oct. 27 for a rare public appearance by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

Winner of fifteen Emmy Awards and a two-time Academy Award nominee, Burns received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2008 for his nearly 40-year career as a documentary filmmaker.

With works including “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The Central Park Five,” “Brooklyn Bridge” and “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” Burns is regarded by critics and historians as one of the most influential documentarians of the last four decades.

In promotion of his new PBS documentary series “Vietnam,” the filmmaker visited Brookdale’s Lincroft campus to meet with students and give a sold-out presentation as part of the college’s annual Jack W. Needle History Lecture series. Jack Needle, a retired Brookdale professor who began the lecture series nearly 20 years, joined interim Brookdale President David Stout to introduce Burns to the capacity crowd.

“In the past we have welcomed speakers such as historian Arthur Schlesinger, journalist and historian David Halberstam, science fiction author Issac Asimov, and political activist Ralph Nader,” said Needle. “All of the astute predecessors of this series combined have not reached as large an audience as today’s guest. And he will continue to educate, enlighten, and entertain us and our progeny for decades to come.”

Burns was welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation before joining history professor and moderator Jess LeVine for an hour-long Q&A about his creative process, his past and future projects and his take on a variety of sociopolitical issues currently facing America.

From nuts-and-bolts shop talk – including his “handmade” approach to filmmaking and his selection of period-specific music for his soundtracks – to larger questions regarding the importance of preserving history, Burns spoke openly and honestly about himself and the world as he sees it.

“History can be a pretty good teacher,” said Burns, answering a question about the similarities between the Vietnam era and today’s political climate. “I just spent 10 years working on a film about mass demonstrations all across the country against the President of the United States. About a White House in disarray, obsessed with leaks. About a president certain the press is lying and making up stories. About asymmetrical warfare that confounds the mighty might of the United States military. About a big document drop into the public sphere of stolen, classified material.

Brookdale student Minh Connors (right) presents a Vietnam-era poster to Ken Burns during a meet-and-greet on Oct. 27. Photo by Mark DeYoung.

“I could take any of the films I have made… and create a list of things where you go, ‘Wow, you are talking about the present,'” he added.  “That’s the great gift of history. If you know where you have been, it can help you understand where you are. And, more importantly, prepare you for that vast, unknown future.”

Burns also weighed in on recent debates regarding Civil War monuments and Confederate flags, which he said were adopted well after the Civil War in reaction to racial integration, rather than in appreciation of history.

“Robert E. Lee never visited Louisiana. Never in his life,” Burns said. “There is no reason for him to be there, and he said that any monuments to the confederacy were misguided and would only prolong the causes of the struggle.”

Burns concluded his talk on a hopeful note, discussing how his past films may have partially overstated the greatness of some subjects, including one of his favorite historical figures: Abraham Lincoln. That disparity, he said, is not necessarily a bad thing.

“The difference between how he was and how we portrayed him is a wonderful thing. A forgivable, wonderful thing,” Burns said. “That difference is our wish for ourselves. Even in the greatest human being, we feel compelled to make them greater, so that we ourselves might be brought along to be that great. And I am willing to accept the difference between how he actually was and how we portray him if, in fact, it is this invitation to awaken in ourselves what he, himself, said in his first inauguration was ‘the better angels of our nature.'”

The presentation also featured a video retrospective of Burns’ work and a preshow meet-and-greet with dozens of Brookdale students, employees and trustees.

For Katie Wierdo, a second-year communication major and president of the Brookdale Film Club, it was a memorable day.

“In film theory we learn all about what they call the Ken Burns effect, this way of moving the camera that he basically pioneered,” said Wierdo, after speaking with Burns backstage. “Today I actually got to meet him in person. I got to talk to him. It was incredible, and he’s such a nice guy.”

The presentation was sponsored by Brookdale’s Office of Student Life and Activities. Learn about all upcoming Brookdale events here.

Check out more photos of the Ken Burns presentation here. 

[Photos contributed by Mark DeYoung]