How do you bring the Dust Bowl back to life? Get Ken Burns to make a film about it.
The preeminent documentarian’s latest act, The Dust Bowl, airing November 18 and 19 at 8 p.m. on PBS, is a two-part, four-hour look at “a decade-long natural catastrophe of biblical proportions.” In the 1930s, America’s agricultural overreach—the heedless farming of unsuitable soil, based on bad science and stubborn optimism—plus a decade-long drought affected 100 million acres and ruined hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods.
As climate change and weird weather grab headlines today, The Dust Bowl is a timely reminder of our fraught relationship with the environment. Pop Omnivore recently caught up with Burns to talk about truth and denial, the role of government, and his own filmmaking techniques—including the “Ken Burns Effect.” [To see a video interview with Burns and National Geographic's Jeff Hertrick, click here.]
Why did you decide to make a film about the Dust Bowl now?
We were faced with an actuarial reality: Pretty soon we’d have nobody to talk to. And even folks that you see [in my film] in their 80s and 90s were children and teenagers at the time. When they pass there will be no memories of the Dust Bowl that you could access that directly.
And memory is the building block, the DNA, of history. Not something that’s old and dusty and covered with cobwebs but something that’s fresh and accessible. When Floyd and Dale Coen both break down over the death of their little baby sister Rena Marie, who was not even 2 ½ years old [when she died of dust pneumonia]—and whom they hadn’t seen since early 1935—that proves my thinking that the past is present.
In the film you interview about 25 living survivors of the Dust Bowl. What was the casting call like?
We took advantage of PBS. It’s the largest network on Earth. So I filmed appeals [which ran on member stations in the Dust Bowl region] and asked people for their photographs and their home movies and their memories—meaning them. And our producers held Dust Bowl roundtables at old-age homes and assisted-living facilities and county historical societies. So we assembled the people that we actually filmed, besides the four historians and the other historical figures, now dead, whom we had to personify with first-person voices.
The narrator calls the Dust Bowl “the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history.” Do you see parallels today—situations where Mother Nature and human nature are at odds?
Of course. The [current] drought in the Midwest and the dust storms that it’s produced are reminders of the Dust Bowl and how tenuous our hold is on the land, especially when the rains refuse [to fall]. We also have climate change, which is magnifying hurricanes like Sandy and also possibly prolonging or lengthening the drought.
In your film historian Donald Worster says, “People thought, as they think again and again, that we’ve turned the corner on climate.” Someone else, talking about the Great Depression, says, “That’s over there. It can’t happen here.” Has that denialist mentality changed since the 1930s?
Ecclesiastes said it better than I could: “What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.” Which is a poetic way of saying that human nature remains the same.
And that is absolutely true. We always think, “My house value will always increase. The stock market will always go up. If I just make this deal, if I just expand here, everything will work out fine.” And then we have this foolish thinking that “rain follows the plow”—that the act of cultivation actually increases rainfall, or that [the climate] has undergone a permanent change—which is just insane. It’s the same idiotic nonsense that we tell ourselves to convince ourselves that our hopes for the future are actually the reality of the future.
In 1935 the federal government created the Soil Conservation Service, to work with and educate the same people it had encouraged to farm the Dust Bowl. Was it right, or even duty bound, to do so?
There was only one agency that could mitigate the harmful effects, and that was the federal government. The New Deal programs that gave surplus commodities kept people in the Dust Bowl from starving to death. [Works Progress Administration] jobs gave people cash and produced highways and bridges and high schools and landing strips that are still there to this day. The Soil Conservation Service taught farmers really good techniques that are still in practice today—contour plowing, rotating crops intelligently. They bought back land and returned it to grassland. They paid farmers not to plant. And they planted hundreds of millions of trees. All of those are really good things.
Should today’s federal government be doing something similar?
Well, I think that for the last 50 years we’ve had this mentality of just living in the present. It’s the tyranny of the shareholder—judge me quarter to quarter. We have to have a long-range plan that addresses our budgetary questions, but also our environmental and agricultural ones, so that we make decisions that don’t bankrupt us. But we also have to make decisions that don’t pollute our atmosphere—like the big debate we’re having now about hydraulic fracturing—and are sustainable. These are all very important things. As William Faulkner said, “History is not was, but is.”
Like a lot of people, when I think of the Dust Bowl and the Depression era I think of The Grapes of Wrath. Did you make this film to show that the situation was bigger and more complicated than just a clichéd image of poor Joads and Okies?
Yes, but that’s not why you make it. You realize early on that we all have that conventional view of migrant families. As everything is, the real story is much more complicated and much more interesting.
Look, the Joads were from eastern Oklahoma. And they were tenant farmers, not landowners. Plus, most of the novel takes place in California. And while we do make two separate trips to California in the film, we’re mostly interested in the folks who were in no man’s land—western Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, Kansas and Colorado and New Mexico. We wanted to tell a very complicated story about some people who were so tied to the land, both emotionally and because they owned it and didn’t have anywhere to go, that they had to struggle and remain—even for that cataclysmic, apocalyptic decade—“next-year people.”
You use images by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein, plus music by Woody Guthrie. Are any photographers or musicians doing that today—giving voice to rural people who are struggling?
What immediately comes to mind is Farm Aid—that amazing conglomeration of people, led by Willie Nelson, who are attempting to help farm families in distress. But we live in such a diverse media culture today that it’s hard for one single person to punch through, as Woody did at that time. He’s got one the great all-time lines when he says, in our film, “I ain’t necessarily a communist, but I’ve been in the red all my life.” That will be funny for an awfully long time.
Speaking of music, how do you choose the scores for your films?
We record our music before we begin editing, which is the exact opposite of how most other filmmakers do it. They usually add it afterwards.
We’re also looking for tunes that are of the period, but also of the vibe. That can be contemporary folk music or it can be classical music, found tunes or the music of Woody Guthrie. We’re very much open to that. Words are good, and pictures are too. But music is hugely central to who we are and how we work.
One technique you’ve pioneered, or at least popularized, involves panning over and zooming in on still photos. In the two-plus decades since your Civil War aired, a lot of documentary filmmakers have used the “Ken Burns Effect.” How do you feel about that?
There’s no copyright on style, so I feel perfectly fine about it. And I’ve got enough problems just working for myself, just trying to do my own job.
But I learn from others. People adapt [my style]. If they’re just copying it, that’s all they’re doing, and it’s pretty evident. If they’re re-employing it, and using it in a way that’s authentic for them, then you learn something from the ways in which they change and alter it. And that can be equally influential for me.
Your subject is history, and your documentaries center on people describing their experiences and remembrances. But when it comes to memoir these days, it seems like “truth” has become a fungible thing. How do you vet or evaluate your subjects so that you know what they’re saying is true?
I tell you what, we’ve made three films on wars. And we had to trust the diaries for the Civil War. But with World War II and the film we’re working on now on the Vietnam War, we ask everybody that we interview who describes combat to sign a release that gives us access to their military records, so that we can verify that they were there when they said they were there. And quite often the citations, or the wounds themselves, speak to what happened to them. So we do classic journalistic triangulation.
Despite that, have there been any examples where a wonderful story someone told turned out to be fabricated or embellished?
I’m knocking on wood right now, but not yet. That’s not to say that we haven’t taken action during the course of a production to limit the scope of someone’s participation because we couldn’t verify aspects of things they said.
But a film is also a kind of polygraph: You can tell when people are lying. We just released a film called The Central Park Five, about the five black and Hispanic boys who were charged with the rape of a jogger in Central Park. And they didn’t do it. And you can spend two hours with them, looking at their faces, and it’s a kind of polygraph that proved to us that they didn’t do it. That’s in addition to exculpatory DNA evidence, which eventually—after they’d served out their full sentences—proved also that they didn’t do it.
You’ve tackled a lot of our country’s iconic objects and endeavors, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Statue of Liberty, the Civil War to Prohibition, jazz to baseball. Do you feel like you’re running out of distinctly American subjects? And do you think you’ll ever make a film about something non-American?
Well, I can’t imagine that right now. Every time I’ve flirted with an idea that was non-American, I’ve always winded up sort of going, “Nah.”
But listen: If I were given a thousand years to live, I wouldn’t run out of interesting topics in American history. I’m not worried at all. And I’ve got everything planned out through 2019. I’ve got this film, The Dust Bowl. The Central Park Five is having a theatrical release before its 2013 PBS broadcast. In 2014 we have a seven-part, 14-hour history of Theodore Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. We’re now shooting a two-part, four-hour history/biography of Jackie Robinson, and a mammoth series—probably seven episodes—on the history of the war in Vietnam. In fact, I have a crew of producers there right now in Hanoi. We’re beginning the writing of a massive series—also probably 14 hours—on the history of country music. And we’re planning a biography of Ernest Hemingway.
So I know what I’m doing through 2019. And in 2015 we’ll have the next ten-year plan lined up of films we want to do.
There’s something reassuring about that.