There is very little “Ken Burns effect” in his new documentary.
His daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband and co-producer, David McMahon, visited Page Hall at the University at Albany on Friday, April 5, where they screened and discussed their film The Central Park Five as part of the New York State Writers Institute Future of Film series, co-presented by WHMT. The three share writing, directing and production credits on the film.
The documentary was based on Sarah Burns’ undergraduate senior thesis, which she later turned into a book, The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes.
“As soon as I started working on the book, we realized this had to be a film,” said Burns in a Q&A after the screening. “The film gave us the opportunity to interview the five and hear from them in person, and give audiences a chance to know them as individuals and to hear their story directly from them.”
The 1989 Central Park Jogger rape case was called the “crime of the century” by then Mayor Ed Koch. After a brutally beaten woman was found near-dead in Central Park, five teens, four black and one Hispanic, were arrested and convicted—and later found to be innocent, after all but two finished their sentences. The film includes footage from the convicted teens’ confessions the night they were arrested—and interrogated for up to 30 hours—which was the only evidence used to convict them.
“They had a such incredible understanding of what had happened to them and a kind of mastery of these events and how they could be compelled as teenagers to confess to a crime they hadn’t committed and hadn’t even seen,” said McMahon, who has worked on other Burns documentaries. “We felt like we could do this film without narration.”
With video of the convicted teens’ initial confessions, news footage, original interviews and shots of past and present New York, the “Ken Burns effect,” zooming in and out of still photos, wasn’t necessary for this film.
While it focuses on a specific case, the film presents a social and cultural landscape of 1980s New York City, including interviews with former mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins. The subject is a more recent one than Ken Burns’ other works, and while the film consults historians and journalists, these are people who actually lived through the events being discussed.
“We also wanted to make New York a character,” said McMahon. “New York of the ’80s was different than New York of today. It was gritty and decaying, but it was also colorful.”
While the incident happened 24 years ago, the same issues brought up in the documentary are relevant today: the way juveniles are interrogated, and the targeting of minorities with New York’s stop-and-frisk police program. The filmmakers’ gathered footage was subpoenaed for a Federal case against New York City by the wrongfully convicted five, but a U.S. District Court judge ruled it could not be used, as the filmmakers were acting as journalists.
The Central Park Five will air nationally April 16 on PBS.