Ken Burns documentary on Dust Bowl to premiere at Hop
By Katie Tai, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, July 10, 2012
By Katie tai The Dartmouth Staff
As the heat wave continues to relentlessly bake the Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States, many students in Hanover choose to fling themselves into the river or an air-conditioned room in hope of respite. While our generation is lucky to have somewhere to escape, imagine the terror of recognizing that relief from nature’s wrath was an impossibility during the Dust Bowl, a period of severe dust storms in the 1930s. During this time, there was nowhere within hundreds of miles where the heat was more bearable or where the air wasn’t choked with fine dust particles that could and would suffocate infants in their cribs.
Over half a century ago, Associated Press reporter Robert Greiger described the formidable phenomenon of dust storms in the American and Canadian prairie lands as a “dust bowl.” Today, the words have gained significance as the name of one of the worst man-made ecological catastrophes in American history that caused enduring environmental damage and tumultuous economic changes in the 1930s. While the current national heat wave is nothing compared to the Dust Bowl, in his new documentary, “The Dust Bowl” (2012), Academy Award-winning director and producer Ken Burns transports his audience to an older and more desperate time that marked a transformative era for the United States. While “The Dust Bowl” will premiere nationwide on the Public Broadcasting Service in November, patrons of the Hopkins Center will be given a chance to preview the first episode of the two-part series in an advanced screening on Friday in Spaulding Auditorium. The screening will be followed by a question and answer session with Burns, the documentary’s writer and co-producer Dayton Duncan and producer Julie Dunfrey ’80.
Burns is no stranger to the Hop, as the screening of “The Dust Bowl” will mark the fourth time he has chosen to preview a film at the College, and he currently serves on the Hop’s Board of Overseers. Hop director of film Bill Pence said that the close relationship Burns has developed with the Hop began in the 1980s when Burns attended the Telluride Film Festival. At the time, Pence was directing the festival, which he co-founded in 1974. Burns immensely enjoyed his experience and chose to premiere his documentary “The Civil War” (1990), which eventually went on the win two Emmy Awards among numerous other accolades at Telluride in 1990, according to Pence.
“‘The Civil War’ was a watershed film,” Pence said. “Everyone talked about it in the late ’80s and early ’90s. His reception at Telluride was so strong he established a relationship with our festival that continues to this day.”
When Burns has a new film he wants to preview to test audience reactions, he often chooses to screen at Dartmouth and usually follows campus screenings with an exciting and interactive question and answer period, Pence said.
“It was a no-brainer,” Pence said in reference to choosing to show the documentary. “Anytime Ken has a new film, he’s welcome. It’s quality, and the audience is going to be there. The audience loves him and he loves Dartmouth.”
While Burns’ documentaries have covered topics as varied as former Gov. Huey Long, D-La., jazz and national parks, the topic of “The Dust Bowl” was chosen by Duncan, who felt that it was a “very important issue” for America, Dunfrey said. Pence agreed, noting that the current environmental and economic woes of the country make the movie timely, allowing viewers to reflect on past mistakes to avoid making them again.
“From an environmental angle, people didn’t know what they were doing back then,” Pence said. “Looking back on it, it seems obvious that they over-planted the wrong wheat in the wrong location. But it’s an amazing story. It shows what disasters can befall us when the hand of man wrongly crosses Mother Nature.”
In a PBS press release, Burns said that the Dust Bowl was “a heart-breaking tragedy,” not only because of the human suffering it caused, but also because it was a preventable calamity. The first episode of “The Dust Bowl” — titled “The Great Plow Up” — chronicles the slow devastation and misuse of the land that climaxed in extreme climate alterations in the 1930s.
Late historian Stephen Ambrose once said that more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source — a statement with which Pence agrees.
“Ken is probably our greatest teacher of what this country is and its issues,” Pence said. “The Dust Bowl is a chapter of history that people know very little about, especially the young generation, and Ken wants to teach it to them.”
Pence said that the generation that lived through the Depression is dying out rapidly and that this documentary will be one the last bits of personal history that younger Americans will be able to observe and absorb.
Using the interviews of 26 survivors of the Dust Bowl, the documentary also shows rare video footage and previously unpublished photographs. Dunfey said that the documentary will show an intimate history, and the people she interviewed were around the age of most college students’ grandparents, which will allow students a “wonderful window” into the world of their generation.
“I hope that students take away an appreciation for the long-term effects of using the environment,” said Dunfey. “I think ‘The Dust Bowl’ is a really relevant film about our relationship with the land and the lessons we avoid at our own peril.”