Sarah Burns knows it doesn’t hurt a first-time documentary maker to have one of the genre’s icons as a father and a colleague.
The daughter of the much-honored Ken Burns (“The Civil War,” “Baseball”), she teamed with him and her husband David McMahon to write and direct the film adaptation of her 2011 book “The Central Park Five,” which uses archival footage and new interviews to recount 1989’s controversial “Central Park Jogger” New York rape case. After film-festival showings and last fall’s theatrical run, the movie makes its PBS debut Tuesday, April 16.
“The book and the film, though they tell the same story, are very different in a lot of ways,” Sarah Burns maintains to Zap2it, “just by the nature of the mediums. The film can provide visuals, but on the other hand, the book is much more dense.
“There’s just more space in a book to get into detail, and a film is quite short in comparison, but you can expand out with things like music and sound effects. Most importantly, the film gave us the opportunity to interview the Five and put them on camera. You get to meet and know them in a different way than I could ever write.”
Then teenagers, the five black and Latino men convicted — wrongly, they always insisted — of assaulting a white woman tell their stories, one preferring to do so while remaining unseen. Among others shown giving their takes are the late New York Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins, with the participants’ comments forming most of the narrative, augmented by the occasional title card.
“We had to think really carefully about what information we were going to provide on those cards,” Burns explains, “and how we were going to make sure things were really clear. Some of the recording quality isn’t the best, but It was really important for people to be able to hear what was being said, and we didn’t want to just subtitle it. That somehow takes away, I think, from the emotion of experiencing it and letting it wash over you.”
After their convictions were vacated, the Central Park Five filed civil lawsuits (still unresolved) against the City of New York and the police officers and prosecutors whose efforts led to the Five’s incarceration. City attorneys tried to subpoena unused footage from the documentary to use in building their defense, but the filmmakers were backed by a judge in blocking that effort, citing reporter’s privilege.
“The film has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations,” Burns says, “just because of the way that people have responded to this story. We wanted the experience of people coming together in a theater, sharing it and talking about it. There’s something really wonderful about that, even though many more people will get a chance to see it on public television.”
PBS will air a version of ‘The Central Park Five” that has been edited “a tiny, tiny amount,” Burns reports, “just to fit for time. I’m guessing that if you watched the two versions back to back, you couldn’t even tell what had been cut. Also, the PBS version will have a little bit of language squeezed out.
“My dad’s project ‘The War’ was broadcast with some swear words in it, because that was important. In the same way, it’s outrageous for the FCC to fine a news organization for showing a soldier swearing while he’s getting shot at. It’s like, ‘Come on, people. What do you expect?’ With this, we wanted to reach the widest possible audience, and if that means we have to bleep out a couple of words so that it’s appropriate for teenagers … we want kids to see this. It’s an important story.
“We’ve now shown it in a bunch of high schools,” adds Burns, “and not one educator has blinked. Not even at the language. And, you know, kids swear. But you don’t want a PBS affiliate to not replay it, if they want to, because they’re afraid someone will call and complain.”
Noting that she and her colleagues are “really thrilled to be coming back to my dad’s home” thanks to the PBS showings, Burns sees “The Central Park Five” as “a departure” for her father, who typically has delved farther back into history with his work.
“This one does feel different,” she says. “The subjects of the film are here to tell their story, which makes it different from a lot of his work, At the same time — and I know my dad would say this — it deals with the same issues that most of his films have over the years, mainly race.”