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Ken Burns’ remastered ‘The Civil War’ returns to PBS

Ken Burns

(The Times Picayune) – Ken Burns’ remastered 1990 masterpiece “The Civil War” returns to PBS at 8 p.m. Monday (Sept. 7) on WYES. Episodes continue at the same hour through Friday.

The 25th-anniversary broadcast features a newly restored high-definition version of the documentary miniseries, which drew nearly 40 million viewers when it first aired.

Here’s an edited email Q&A with Burns:

Q: The film’s themes continue to resonate, given all the recent news. Does that surprise you? Disappoint you?

A: It doesn’t surprise me. The Civil War is a defining moment in our country’s history. It is a period with a clear before and after. The world that we live in today very much grew out of that period and that conflict. But just as importantly, the Civil War is a period of extraordinary drama. It is an amazing story that touches upon every aspect of life.

The fact that the film continues to resonate does not disappoint me. I think interest in our past – and in good stories – is something very healthy.

What’s disappointing is that as a nation we have not made more progress related to race and equality. There’s no doubt that the legacy of the abolitionist movement was inspirational to the on-going civil rights movement and we should be hugely proud of the improvements made. But there’s so much to be done, around economic inequality and opportunity, especially related to the legacy of slavery.

We’re debating removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans. As an historian, where would you fall in that debate?

I think the discussion about the past and its ongoing impact is hugely valuable. I am not at all opposed to constantly rethinking the value of monuments and other symbolic statements that deal with the past. I think each has to be discussed on its own. With the Confederate flag, however, we must recognize that the flag is less about the history of the South and more about opposition to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Removing the Confederate flag from government buildings and other public places is something I applaud.

Is there a segment in the film that has changed for you as you’ve aged? Something you re-discovered recently that moved you in ways it didn’t move you earlier?

The entire film changed who I am. I knew very little about the Civil War when I started. It was an education on every level – as a filmmaker, an American, as a parent. Until it wore out completely a few years ago, I carried a copy Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife in my pocket. It was a statement of love – to his wife and his country. Perhaps the greatest lesson, one that I’m constantly reminded of, unfortunately most during the time of war, is that there’s a tremendous love of country that continues to inspire people to heroic acts. And as a parent, I’m reminded of what so many Americans lost during this war – and other wars. To us it may be a dramatic story, but for those who lived during this period it was a devastating conflict that destroyed families and resulted in an unimaginable loss of life.

What are your memories of the initial critical and public reaction to the first airing?

I had no expectation that the film would so capture the attention and imagination of the country. I had long expected to toil in anonymity and then the film completely transformed my relationship to the public. I found that wherever I went people wanted to share their stories – stories about family, about their experience during the war, their thoughts about the Civil War. It was an extraordinary transformation and it was both humbling and exhilarating.

Any anecdotal memories from the years since of specific viewer interactions?

As for memories, there’s rarely a day that goes by (for 25 years!) that someone doesn’t speak to me about the impact the series had on them, their kids, their late parents. Our treatment of the defining moment in American history struck a chord. My favorites are when firemen or cops or immigrant cabdrivers say how much it meant. We all have an idea of a typical PBS viewer, but these folks blow that out of the water and suggest, I think, the broad reach of good programming.

What does the remastering reveal that adds to the experience?

It really is extraordinary. What viewers will see is exactly what I and the other cinematographers saw when we looked through our cameras. There’s a richness and clarity that really pops out, in the footage that we took and the historical photographs.

What would you do differently today if you were starting from scratch on the subject?

That’s a tough question. I would hope nothing. We start our films with a sense of exploration. It is a learning process. I think that comes across in the final product. There’s a joy involved in discovering. I approach every film and topic in a way that is hopefully not overly pre-mediated. It is a non-judgmental relationship with the people in the film – alive and dead – and the topics themselves.

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