Spanning over 20 films and countless awards, Ken Burns' career has long embraced the self-described "emotional archeology" that drives him to document incredible events and people from our past. Subjects such as "The Civil War," "Prohibition," "Thomas Jefferson" and others are all related with a beautiful mixture of photos, personal stories and music that turns otherwise one-dimensional history lessons into engaging epics.
"The material speaks and tells you what it needs," he recently told a gathering at Rowan University in New Jersey. "It's all about if you're willing to donate your attention. You're trying to convey the emotion, the meaning and — sometimes — the double meaning that lies beneath."
Burns' next feature documentary, "The Dust Bowl," was recently announced by PBS officials at the Winter TV press tour in Pasadena, Calif. It will air on the network in November 2012. According to the 58-year-old, the film will tell "the story of 25 people who were children and teenagers during this 10-year apocalypse. They're remembering unbelievable trials as if they were yesterday."
The Dust Bowl (aka, "The Dusty Thirties") was a period of devastating dust storms during the 1930s that caused terrible ecological damage to prairie lands in the U.S. and Canada. It was a man-made disaster caused by overfarming and severe drought, leading to the displacement hundreds of thousands of people.
"It was as though the sky was divided into two opposite worlds," recalled one person who experienced the infamous "Black Sunday" dust storm on April 14, 1935. "On the south there was blue sky, golden sunlight and tranquility; on the north, there was a menacing curtain of boiling black dust that appeared to reach a thousand or more feet into the air. It had the appearance of a mammoth waterfall in reverse – color as well as form. The apex of the cloud was plumed and curling, seething and tumbling over itself from north to south and whipping trash, papers, sticks, and cardboard cartons before it. Even the birds were helpless in the turbulent onslaught and dipped and dived without benefit of wings as the wind propelled them."
To piece together the doc, Burns says he made an appeal to viewers through PBS asking them for their stories, films and pictures.
"It's animated by you becoming intimately acquainted with their families," he shared. "One of the most important characters is actually dead, but her diary is unbelievable."
Looking ahead, Burns has plans to document the Vietnam War (2016), The Roosevelts (2014), and Ernest Hemingway (2019), in addition to other projects.
"When you work on something for several years, you find out a lot," he said. "Every day is a surprise, and I think I have the best job in the country."