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‘There are no ordinary people’

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns helps raise $11,500 for Shelburne Falls library

  • Ken Burns at the Arms Library in Shelburne Falls on Wednesday.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Ken Burns at the Arms Library in Shelburne Falls on Wednesday. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Some of the fine archetectual details of the Arms Library can be seen as Ken Burns talks with Kathleen and James Keenan who drove from North Andover to meet the documentary film maker.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Some of the fine archetectual details of the Arms Library can be seen as Ken Burns talks with Kathleen and James Keenan who drove from North Andover to meet the documentary film maker. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ken Burns at the Arms Library in Shelburne Falls on Wednesday.  Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Some of the fine archetectual details of the Arms Library can be seen as Ken Burns talks with Kathleen and James Keenan who drove from North Andover to meet the documentary film maker.  Recorder/Paul Franz

SHELBURNE FALLS — A preview of Ken Burns’ 14-hour documentary series “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” played to a full house Wednesday night at Memorial Hall, raising $11,500 for the Arms Library’s “Raise the Roof” capital campaign fundraiser.

Burns, his voice hoarse from four days of speaking engagements, spent at least an hour answering audience questions, not only about “The Roosevelts” but about many other iconic documentaries he’s made in the last 35 years.

“When we work on a film, we’re always stunned by how much what we’re working on resonates with the present,” said Burns. “Our attempt is to tell you a little bit about (the Roosevelts) in a way that removes the distance from them … by the celebrity culture.”

Franklin Roosevelt, Burns remarked, “was an extremely lonely man. ER and TR (Eleanor and Theodore Roosevelt) both had the ability to outrun their demons, and they did. But Franklin could not,” he said.

When asked if Teddy Roosevelt “was a real-life John Wayne,” Burns replied, “Teddy was crazy, and we have to be very careful. He was called ‘a locomotive in trousers.’ But TR is the writingest president we’ve ever had. TR wrote ten times more letters than Thomas Jefferson.”

One audience member, who said she is 97 years old, remarked that she heard Eleanor Roosevelt speak at Northfield Mount Hermon School.

When an 11-year-old boy asked Burns how he got started in filmmaking, Burns told him it was when he was 12, after his mother died.

“My mother died when I was 11,” said Burns. “I watched that process, and my father had never cried.” Burns said he was angry with his father for showing no emotion over his mother’s death, but one night, while watching a movie with Burns, his father just broke down and cried. “I forgave him and I knew the movie gave him an outlet for his grief,” said Burns.

When Burns began studying filmaking, he wanted to make feature films, but a college professor persuaded him that “there is as much drama in what is, as there is in things we can make up.”

Burns also believes that “there are no ordinary people,” and that the lives of private soldiers in a series like The Civil War can be as interesting as that of more famous men.

Burns said he’s currently working on a new series about the Vietnam War.

Earlier in the evening, Burns met library supporters at a reception at the Arms Library, in which people had paid $100 each as part of the fundraiser.

Among them were six University of Massachusetts students, whose college professors, Robert Maloy and Sharon Edwards of Shelburne, had paid for them to attend.

When asked later what they talked to him about, Allison Evans, who teaches at the Williston Northampton School, asked his advice on how to teach documentary filmmaking to middle-school students. He told her to start them off with films no longer than two minutes. Evans said that will seem short until the kids start editing the film and adding music. “He said it will help them develop strong skills, but will be realistic for their age.”

Kim Klein of Shelburne Falls had asked Burns to come to Shelburne Falls to help the library with its $1.3 million fundraiser for roof and foundation repairs, along with other building improvements. Klein had worked with Burns at Florentine Films and is now executive director of The Better Angel Society, a nonprofit organization that funds and provides educational outreach for documentary films on American history.

“For too long there’s been a presumption that film is the enemy of ‘the word,’” Burns told the audience in Memorial Hall. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” For filmmakers, he said, “Our favorite people in the world are librarians and archivists. So when Kim Klein asked me to do this, (the answer) was an unqualified ‘yes.’”

“The Roosevelts” will be broadcast on Public Broadcast Stations from Sept. 14 through Sept. 20 this fall. Each of the seven, two-hour episodes will air on a different night at 8 p.m. and at 10 p.m., according to Burns.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

(Editor’s Note: some details of this story were corrected from an earlier version.)

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