by José de la Isla
In what some key advocates view as a major breakthrough in the Latino community’s confrontation with PBS over Ken Burns’ upcoming TV documentary on World War II, Burns has approved a five-point statement agreeing to add new material on Hispanic veterans within the body of the documentary, significantly changing his 14-hour film.
The documentary, titled “The War,” consists of seven two-hour segments. It is scheduled to air beginning Sept. 23.
The major shift by Burns was summarized in a May 17 e-mail from American G.I. Forum national commander Antonio Gil Morales. Its details and significance were shared with Hispanic Link News Service by Manuel Mirabal, board chairman of the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility.
The Hispanic community did not back off from this fight because we were dealing witha behemoth like PBS or because we were dealing with the pre-eminent American documentarian, Mirabal said. “We believed we were right, and we would not take less than we deserved. And we did this all together.
The G.I. Forum and HACR helped create a coalition of Hispanic organizations and leaders to confront PBS and Burns after University of Texas, Austin, journalism professor Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez first brought public attention to Burns’ failure to include any mention of the Hispanic role in WWII. Rivas-Rodríguez founded and still directs the UT based U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project.
Under the banner “Defend the Honor,” she organized the first meeting on the issue with PBS President Paula Kerger, seeking and gaining support from a number of Hispanic advocacy, educational, media, veterans and political organizations.
From the start, the Forum and HACR were among the fiercest critics of Burns and PBS.
The new development resulted from a marathon 14-hour meeting in New York City between Washington, D.C., lawyer-lobbyist Raúl Tapia, representing the interests of the G.I. Forum and HACR, with Burns and Florentine Films, his production team. In what was expected to be a discussion of no more than a couple of hours, the negotiators stayed at the table from the morning of May 9 until 2 a.m. the following day.
The session concluded with Burns agreeing that the narrative and voices of Hispanic World War II veterans would be incorporated into the main body of the documentary.
A summary of the points of agreement, as prepared by the G.I. Forum’s Morales, was forwarded to Burns, who had traveled to France for the Cannes film festival. He communicated his concurrence May 17 with the points as they had been fleshed out at the New York meeting, according to Mirabal.
These included the recognition that Burns’ production team had conducted several compelling” interviews with decorated Latino veterans and that “their stories will be incorporated in a way that is consistent with the film’s focus on individual experiences” and that “Mr. Burns will personally direct and produce the creation of this new material.
With the recent involvement of Latino filmmaker Héctor Galán, Florentine has been shooting interviews, described as “very powerful,” with Latino veterans in Texas and elsewhere to “deepen the nation’s understanding” of the sacrifices of as many as a halfmillion Latinos and Latinas made to the war effort.
As the controversy developed, PBS steadfastly maintained that no changes in the body of the completed documentary could be made because that would infringe upon Burns’ artistic integrity. The Hispanic groups regularly raised questions as to how Burns’ production team could have spent five or six years researching “The War” without recognizing its omission of Hispanics.
Various groups, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, expressed strong concerns about the oversight. The Caucus called for and got a separate meeting with PBS leaders. A few PBS corporate funders also became involved.
PBS was not included in the New York deliberations. Nor was Maggie Rivas- Rodríguez, who made an earlier decision not to join in the coalition formed by HACR and the Forum.
(José de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org). © 2007