by Jorge Mariscal
PBS and Ken Burns still don’t get it.
After months of negotiations with Latino advocacy groups, academics, veterans and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the powers that be at PBS and their house director Ken Burns fail to understand the real issues at stake in Burns’ exclusion of the Latino experience in his World War II documentary “The War.”
In an article published May 5 in The New York Times, Burns continued to make self-aggrandizing and ignorant statements.
According to the Times, Burns called his 14-hour series, scheduled to be shown during Hispanic Heritage Month in September, “a sort of epic poem and not a textbook.”
He must be kidding. Several weeks ago, Mr. Burns compared his film to the U.S. Constitution. Now he says it’s sort of an epic poem.
artist’s personal vision. The singer of the Iliad or the Poem of the Cid was simplyIf he knew anything about epic poems, he would know that they were composed with the goal of representing an entire community’s historical experience. They had nothing to do with an individual a vehicle for a shared collective experience.
Clearly, Burns is not interested in any of these things. He has his individual “vision” which cannot be tampered with. He is a self-righteous romantic who has no business and not enough knowledge to chronicle an event as momentous as World War II.
No one in the group that raised questions about the film asked Burns to turn it into “a textbook.” Let him be as lyrical and non-narrative as he wishes. No one wants to deprive him of his artistic freedom. But he has no right to invent a history of the war that excludes a community that paid a very high price for its participation.
The Times article stated: “Mr. Burns, who was not at the meeting (between PBS executives and Hispanic leaders), said he found it painful that the controversy was erupting over a film in which he explores an episode of American history that brought citizens together.”
Burns is pained by the controversy. Then why doesn’t he stop his pain by doing the right thing? Is his “vision” more important than an inclusive account of the war? It was his flawed “vision” and sloppy research (not those who raised legitimate questions) that created divisions.
While it is certainly true that World War II brought the U.S. people together, Burns needs to go back to school to learn about events like the Zoot Suit Riots and the Felix Longoria case. World War II was not as utopian for some communities as Burns thinks it was. He didn’t do his homework.
Burns should either fire his researchers or fire himself. As long as PBS continues to take money from the public treasury, it should fire all of them.
Can we Latinos look forward to some future Ken Burns excluding us from the history of the U.S. war in Iraq?
Finally, the Times reported: “Mr. Burns said there was no chance that the film would be re-edited. It would be destructive, like trying to graft an arm onto your child,” he said. “It would destroy the film.”
Give me a break. Any decent writer or filmmaker not blinded by ego knows that any text or film thought to be finished can be reopened and revised without the slightest negative impact on overall tone and structure. It might actually get better.
To think otherwise displays either a total lack of creative imagination or a stubborn refusal to listen to other voices or both.
A film is not a child. And if it were, no one is asking Burns to attach a third arm.
Simply put, Latinos are asking Burns to reshape the entire artifact into a harmonious object that reflects every community that lived the experience of the war against fascism.
One of the cities featured in the current film is Sacramento, California. Competent historians could quickly provide Burns with stories of Latino veterans from that city that might be seamlessly woven into his film.
But unfortunately, PBS and Ken Burns still don’t get it. Or they simply don’t care.
(Jorge Mariscal, a veteran of the U.S. war in Vietnam, is a professor of history and literature at the University of California, San Diego. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org). © 2007