Character-Driven Documentaries

I am currently watching one of Ken Burns’ amazing documentary series.  If you’ve never seen any of his work, it is definitely worth watching.

Ken Burns has made several documentary series for PBS, on an interesting range of American History-related topics.  I’ve seen Jazzand The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.  I’m now watching The War, his series on World War II.  The coolest thing about the work of Ken Burns is how he tells the story.  He focuses on people, rather than events.

I’ve mentioned it plenty of times, so you probably already know, but I am a character-driven kind of person.  In my reading, my writing, and even tv and movie watching, if I’m not attached to a character, I’m not involved enough to keep going.  This is why I like Ken Burns.

There are many “characters” that a documentary about World War II could follow, and I’m sure you can think of some.  Ken Burns didn’t choose those people.  Instead, he chose soldiers and families, working-class Americans whose lives were impacted heavily by the war.   The documentary actually follows four towns and the people from those towns, which makes an instant connection: here is what your life could have been like, if you were alive at the time.

He’s selected his characters well, finding people who were involved in key action (the first episode has the Bataan Death March and the Battle of Guadalcanal, for example) so the documentary doesn’t miss important events.  These same people, at least so far in the series, are still alive.  Pause for a moment to realize the value of this; these are people who were actually involved in turning points in the war who can tell their stories now, for the camera, in a documentary.  Add to this equation that the people we are following are also strategically from four specific towns, and you begin to understand the intelligence and attraction of a Ken Burns film.

Before you tell me, yes, I know there are many soldiers from WWII who are still alive, and all of those key battles involved lots of people.  There are many, many stories that can be told from the war.  The point is not that this is a difficult group of people to find; the point is that Ken Burns chose to find them, and follow their stories, in a way that is both educational and involving.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Wayne
    Apr 23, 2012 @ 13:34:36

    Was he the director that focused on character and his progressive agenda and ignored the true history? Or was that a different PBS documentarian?


    • Leigh Townsend
      Apr 24, 2012 @ 17:00:43

      It’s quite possible. I generally miss the undertones of agenda when I watch/read things, which drives some of my friends crazy. (They try to talk to me about the deeper meanings, and I look at them funny. Once they tell me what they mean, I usually get it, but enjoyment of the surface clouds that part for me.)
      So far the history seems accurate, but I only really know big-picture stuff.


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