Documentarian Ken Burns’ first-ever film retrospective kicks off in Gettysburg

Ken Burns, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) filmmaker who has done so much to explore “Who We Are,” is in town all weekend for his first-ever retrospective film festival. “Who Are We: A Festival Celebrating the Films of Ken Burns” is jointly sponsored by Gettysburg College and the Gettysburg Majestic Theater.

At a discussion on Friday morning in the theater, Burns expressed pleasure at being back in Gettysburg after several years’ absence. “I’m always moved by my return to Gettysburg; it’s important for us in our busy and distracted lives to remember what happened here,” he said.

In addition to the historic 1863 Civil War battle, which Burns characterized as “the most important battle, the bloodiest battle, and unquestionably the turning point,” Burns also reminded the audience that the town was also home to “the greatest speech in the English language” and “arguably Declaration of Independence 2.0.”  Burns was of course referring to President Abraham Lincoln’s iconic Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863.

Since his first film, “Brooklyn Bridge” (1981), Burns has produced more than 40 films for PBS, exploring such historical and cultural topics as baseball, jazz, and country music; various topics on the Great Depression; sporting pioneers such as Jackie Robinson and Muhammed Ali; the Central Park 5; and most recently, the Holocaust. Yet he remains best known for his epic 1990 series on the Civil War, perhaps the most influential documentary ever made.

Festival events will take place at the College and the Majestic over the weekend, and will include screenings of many of his films as well as a series of live conversations following some of the screenings and breakout sessions on topics such as “art” and “writing.”

Other speakers will include Susan Eisenhower and Tracie Potts of the college’s Eisenhower Center; Jake Boritt, a Gettysburg-raised documentary film producer; and Kevin Richardson, one of the exonerated Central Park 5.

When asked by the audience, Burns was unwilling to name a favorite film, though he said that the Civil War is without a doubt the most important event in U.S. history and that his “The U.S. and Holocaust” was his most important film.

Burns did have a quick answer about his favorite spot in Gettysburg: “The entire field is special,” he said, “but for me, there is no place more evocative than to be on Little Round Top.”

Photos by Jim Bargas.

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Leon Reed, freelance reporter, is a former US Senate staff member, defense consultant, and history teacher. He is a seven year resident of Gettysburg, where he writes military history and explores the park and the Adams County countryside. He is the publisher at Little Falls Books, chaired the Adams County 2020 Census Complete Count Committee and is on the board of SCCAP and the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. He and his wife, Lois, have 3 children, 3 cats, and 5 grandchildren.


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