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Q&A With Ken Burns And Lynn Novick On 'The Vietnam War' Part 2


This is the second part of a two-part interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. To read the first part, click here


Q&A with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Part 2

Kaylee Domzalski: My final question is on technology. There are so many other ways that we can document our lives. There’s social media and iPhone technology. What is the larger role of documentary filmmaking today?

Ken Burns: Documentary is very adaptive and always has been. It uses the tools it has. And while we may not be writing letters, which have been, for me in many films, a great source of grist for our mill, we’ve got other things now. We do have those iPhones and soldiers are carrying them there.

You know in the Vietnam film, a soldier took over there — a poor soldier from a tiny community in southwestern Missouri — took a little reel-to-reel tape recorder and would record things. And people back home would listen to them and then they’d record. And not just his mom and dad and siblings, but the rest of the community would do it.

So it looks to us now as if it’s a completely new territory. And it is in many ways. But it also represented that new technology, which was revolutionary, like the idea of a portable tape recorder. Right? And this is reel-to-reel because they hadn’t invented cassettes yet, so you know, this is all stuff that disappeared before you were born. So, you know, there’s always been, you know, whether it’s the telegraph in the middle of the 19th century, where people have said you know, this is it, communication has completely changed forever.

We, as the documentarians of the time, are always going to use whatever’s available to us. And fortunately, this particular film has thousands of hours of film, and tens of thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of interview that we’ve been able to use.

Lynn Novick: I think we have this paradoxical thing we talked about a lot when we’re in the editing room. And just making a film and thinking about something that’s going to be 10 parts in 18 hours … we say we have a short attention span, and we’re talking about tweets, and memes and these little short bursts of information.

And that satisfies part of our need to connect, but only part. It’s just this thin. I think there’s this tremendous appetite for a deep, immersive experience and something that sort of flows over time that you have to actually commit to.

And we’ve seen this with all kinds of things we’ve done, and other things on TV, where you really can just sort of dive into something and feel like you’ve had this experience. I think that’s where the greatest strength of documentary can be: is to aggregate this little burst of stuff and then make something coherent and meaningful over time.

We feel pretty strongly that there’s a strong audience for that across many platforms. It doesn’t have to be on a broadcast. It could be streaming or it could be on your phone. But the sense that you can commit to something and really gain something deeper out of it is what we’re hoping to do.


The first five episodes of “The Vietnam War” will air nightly from Sunday, Sept. 17, through Thursday, Sept. 21, and the final five episodes will air nightly from Sunday, Sept. 24, through Thursday, Sept. 28. 

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