Documentarian urges students to ask 'who we might be'

By Mary Rose Fissinger


Oscar nominated documentarian Ken Burns inquired of the student body, “Who are we?” on Tuesday March 17.



That is the question he strives to address and answer through his films, which have gained recognition around the world. Burns was the 8th annual speaker in the Lindaud Abbott Brown Family Distinguished speaker series, which brings speakers of international consequence. President Tom Hudnut introduced him as “filmmaker, historian, storyteller, he is ultimately an educator.”


Burns began by talking about the American classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, referring to it as the American “Iliad.” He said that the reason this book is such a classic is because it addresses the two issues most prominent in the United States: race and space.


The two documentaries that he showed clips of illustrated these two points. The first was about World War ll and its effect on four individual towns in America. It highlighted specifically the battle at Tarawan, an island in the South Pacific, where the Americans lost a third of 10,000 men fighting the Japanese. After the clip ended, he had all 17 and 18 year old boys stand up to reinforce the fact that thousands of boys as young as them died for their country.


The second clip was from a not yet released documentary of his entitled “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” He showed the introduction to the film, filled with shots of the oldest trees in the country, the tallest mountain, the deepest canyon. In this documentary he stressed that the beautiful thing about National Parks is that everybody can share them. It is the “full meaning of democracy.”


Following this clip, Burns spoke about how standing in nature can make one feel so insignificant. He then connected it back to his initial question. He said he showed these two films because “they’re getting at the essence of who we might be.” He left the audience with a suggestion to spend some time looking inwards, for he said, “Often these questions are turned inside out and become ‘Who am I?’”     

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