Ken Burns previews his WWII docu miniseries at Full Frame. The director of ''Baseball and Jazz'' is the big star at the documentary film festival, but what is Sydney Pollack doing there?

By Scott Brown
Updated April 07, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Ken Burns: Michael Caulfield/

Hey, y’all! They let me out of the office, and without an ankle monitor this time. I’m back in my hometown of Durham, NC, where documentary film is fast replacing tobacco as the cash crop. The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is entering its ninth year, and I’ll be spending the rest of the week here. If you’re around, swing on by. The barbecue’s on me. Within reason. This is the Web — I’m on a budget.

I began the day in fine film festival form: missing something I later found out I really wanted to see. Stranger with a Camera revisits the 1967 killing of a documentary filmmaker who was dispatched to rural Kentucky to capture images of poverty. It was part of Johnson’s War on Poverty, but it quickly became a shooting war. The locals didn’t take to the photog — didn’t like the idea of being portrayed as dirt-poor rubes — and someone shot the guy. Years later, a young woman from the town decided to look back at the incident.

Which raises an increasingly pertinent question: When does the documentarian become part of documentary? Always? Never? Send Me Somewhere Special, a magical 37-minute short that might’ve grown tiresome at twice that length, is about a British documentary filmmaker (seeing a trend yet?) with no money, no inspiration, and a broken heart. He withdraws his savings (the equivalent of $200) and goes to the bus station, with the intention of making a film about the town that’s suggested to him. A street performer gives him the name of the village where his father dies, and he goes there. In just a few days, he uncovers plenty of human drama, ruffling a few feathers along the way. His insistent question: Are you happy? Most of his subjects say they generally don’t think about it — unless pestered by a man with a camera. But once pestered, they do seem to feel compelled to answer. And the answers aren’t encouraging.

Self-aware, possibly self-indulgent documentary filmmaking isn’t just the province of the young. Sydney Pollack’s excellent, if occasionally fawning, Frank Gehry film provides insight into the creative process of not only the celebrated architect, but also his pal, celebrated filmmaker Sydney Pollack. Still, Pollack captures some amazing moments of grace, beauty, and what can only be described as a transcendent ugliness (e.g. Julian Schnabel in a terrycloth bathrobe).

This was Pollack’s first documentary, and the experience of making it seems to have refreshed his whole perspective on filmmaking. “I didn’t know what the film WAS,” says the Oscar winner in wonderment, recounting the strangeness of working without a storyboard. “I’m curious to ask other documentary filmmakers if THEY know what their films are going to be before they’re finished. I’d like to try to incorporate that looseness into fiction. I wish there were a way to bring that documentary spontaneity to narrative.” (Uh, dude… watch The Office.)

He concedes that his old approach to nonfiction film was naïve. “I know the truth. I’m bored by it. I don’t mean fiction is better. But I LIVE truth.” Making the Gehry film has given him a new slant on what constitutes engrossing narrative. Perhaps he now sees in documentary what Gehry sees in a good sketch: “The first flush, the sketch, is the most exciting. After it’s fleshed out, it becomes less interesting to him.” Is he trumpeting unrefined, spontaneous reality over hyperefined, ultrastylized fiction? Maybe. But he still, he ends by quoting his old friend Stanley Kubrick: “Real is good. Interesting is better.”

Pollack’s the big name here today. He gave a big press conference and ate some pork barbecue before ceding the spotlight to Ken Burns (here to show excerpts from his unfinished WWII TV miniseries, The War). (D.A. Pennebaker and Robert Leacock are also hovering near the buffet table; the latter’s here for a lifetime achievement award.)

Burns’ WWII miniseries is still a work-in-progress, timecodes and all. This, admittedly, doesn’t sound all that riveting. But give it a chance: Burns is focusing on the great mishaps of WWII. For instance: You’ve heard all about Omaha Beach, but how about Market Garden? It was a post-D-Day war plan approved by Eisenhower, which was supposed to end the war by Christmas of ’44. Needless to say, it failed. But here’s something you don’t hear about in history class: More men died in this bungled maneuver than perished on D-Day. Burns has unearthed a ton of rare footage that gets you in close and shows you things the History Channel might find distasteful — missions that weren’t worth it, prices that really were too high, big egos and bad tactics, and incredible stories of soldiers endangered not just by enemy fire but incompetence at the top. (Of particular interest is a chapter on a battalion of Japanese-Americans plucked from internment camps.) Unlike Civil War soldiers, Burns explained after the screening, American G.I.’s in WWII were not allowed to keep journals — most of the insights here are furnished not by Dear Sarah letters, but by a series of interviews with strikingly clearheaded veterans with damn good memories.

The big theme of this year’s festival is Hurricane Katrina, and the program on the tragedy is immense and authoritative. But today, opening day, documentary examined itself, and came up with some highly watchable navel lint. And that’s a compliment.