Ken Burns Dissects the Power of Story

Winter Park Institute visiting scholar Ken Burns discusses how stories, images, and places affect us all.

On Monday, April 7, award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns shared with the Rollins community his insights about how stories shape culture and life. Presented by the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College, Burns discussed his creative process and how he harnesses storytelling to create a transformation in audiences, specifically for his 6-part, 12-hour miniseries The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

Burns described his storytelling technique as “emotional archaeology.”  “It’s not about sentimentality or nostalgia,” he says. “It’s about the improbable calculus of accessing those higher emotions that everyday life tamps down.”

Opening up about his childhood, Burns explained that he discovered the power of storytelling shortly after his mother died. A family friend pointed out that his father had not cried at the funeral, which perplexed Burns. It wasn’t until he and his father watched a movie late one night that his father was finally able to cry.  “The film allowed him to find a place to express that complicated emotion,” he says. It was then he realized filmmaking isn’t necessarily brain surgery but heart surgery.

“We use stories to superimpose narrative over the chaos of life,” he says. “Stories allow us to sort and arrange the random events of our lives in order to communicate meaning and purpose.”

That philosophy is why Burns uses stories about individuals or narrated by them in all his films.

Burns believes that, “History is a collection of noises which we combine to celebrate the special message of a shared past. My job on earth is to wake the dead, bringing life to figures long since passed. If you tell a good story, everybody will come.”