November 29, 2015


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She inherited passion for purveying the truth

Director Ken Burns' daughter follows in his just-the-facts film footsteps

Like father, like daughter. And in this case, it's a very good thing.

When Sarah Burns was seven years old, she accompanied her father -- filmmaker Ken Burns -- to the semi-annual TV critics press tour in Los Angeles, where he was doing interviews to promote an ambitious historical-documentary project called The Civil War.

Accused rapist Yusef Salaam being escorted by police in New York in 1990. Salaam was wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park.


Accused rapist Yusef Salaam being escorted by police in New York in 1990. Salaam was wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park.

The Central Park Five made headlines in 1989.


The Central Park Five made headlines in 1989.

While her father prepared to answer questions about the massive PBS undertaking that would reset the template for television documentaries, young Sarah Burns distributed press kits to the media types in the room. Twenty-three years later, Burns was back at the TV press tour, this time seated alongside her father as co-director of the latest PBS project to bear his name.

In fact, the inspiration for the documentary The Central Park Five, which airs tonight at 8 on Prairie Public TV, is the like-titled book that Sarah Burns wrote about the infamous case of five New York City youths who were wrongfully prosecuted and convicted for the 1989 rape of a female jogger in Central Park.

"I cannot tell you what an extraordinary gift it is to be able to work so hard, put no pressure on your children to go into the business that you're in, and find out she was willing to do (this film) and do it so spectacularly," Burns said of his daughter's evolution from college student to author to documentary production partner.

"This project is born of her outrage and anger at this story. Many of us lived through it. I did. I was editing The Civil War in New York City when it took place. I, too, bought the (media) story, wrung my hands at what I thought was the complete collapse of our society, and was aware that there was almost no coverage at the time of their exoneration.

"Sarah, at that time, was in college and began to be interested in this and had followed it doggedly for almost 10 years, her outrage infecting the rest of us, her incredible work habits and humanity permitting the Central Park Five, who had, up to that point, not been treated like human beings, to actually be willing to open up and tell their story for the first time to another human being."

The Central Park Five is a meticulously detailed and deliberately paced two-hour film that examines the case from the perspectives of the now-middle-aged men who, as teens, were swept up in the NYPD's frenzied effort to solve the case and coerced into statements and confessions that would lead to the conviction of all five.

The men -- Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam -- served sentences ranging from six to 13 years before another person, serial rapist Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime. After DNA evidence conclusively linked Reyes to the crime, the records of the five were eventually cleared -- despite objections from police and prosecutors desperate to preserve their reputations.

"I first learned about this case in 2003; I was a college student and I was thinking about becoming a lawyer," Sarah Burns explained. "I spent a summer working for a civil rights lawyer who was just getting involved in the case -- the convictions had been vacated and they were working on getting ready to file the civil suit that is still ongoing. And I met Raymond and Kevin that summer; at first, I was interested in it from an academic perspective... I ended up writing my undergraduate thesis, my senior essay at Yale about this case, about the racism and the media coverage and the historical context for that.

"But I couldn't really let it go. And there was so much more to the story than just this narrow part of it that I had studied. So a couple years later, I decided that rather than applying to law school, I would try to write this book and sort of figure out how to be a journalist...

"I realized that this was a story about human dignity and that there was a really powerful story there about these men and their families and what had happened to them and how it had happened. And that's, I think, what we're really trying to explore in the film as well."

It's a difficult story, well told. And without question, the programmers at PBS are delighted that Sarah Burns decided to go into the family business. Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2013 C3

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