Latino activists upset over Ken Burns’s WWII series

April 8, 2007
CBC News

Latino activists and politicians are demanding major alterations to U.S. filmmaker Ken Burns’s WWII series on PBS, The War, to include Hispanic vets.

The 14-hour series is slated to air in September and PBS has already been promoting it, with Burns showing snatches of his film in museums and to military cadets. A book based on the series will also be launched simultaneously.

“It has to be something substantive,” says Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, who leads a history Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, shown here in 2004, spent six   years producing his WWII series, The War, for PBS. project at the University of Texas detailing the contributions of Latino veterans. “It can’t be simply inserting someone with a [Latin] last name and saying, ‘Oh, yeah, he was there, too.’”

Burns’s series, which took six years to create, knits the experiences of four individuals from four communities across the U.S with a narrative about how the war changed lives and the world.

Burns has said he considers the film finished but has also acknowledged that he appreciates the concerns of the Latino community.

“We did not set out to exclude Latinos, or any other group for that matter,” he told the Associated Press. “In fact, thousands of stories have not been included. We set out to explore the human experience of war and combat based on a handful of stories told by individuals in only four American towns.”

Rivas-Rodriguez remains unconvinced, noting that African-American and Japanese-American vets were interviewed. She also points out how Latino veterans were refused service at restaurants in the U.S. after fighting for their country.

“Our people weren’t valued. Not only were they not valued then, they are not being valued today.”

Solutions promised by PBS

PBS chief Paul Kerger has had to meet with members of the Hispanic caucus in Congress and has promised some solutions soon.

The issue puts PBS in the uncomfortable position of having to tell a filmmaker to alter his vision. The public broadcaster has a long history with Burns, who recently signed a lifetime contract with PBS.

The 53-year-old director’s nine-episode Civil War series, on PBS in 1990, earned 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards, a Producer of the Year award from the Producers Guild of America and a Peabody. He then followed up with Baseball in 1994 — which also won an Emmy — and 2001’s Jazz serial.

In addition, the network has been under pressure from politicians about a perceived liberal bias.

Kerger replaced Pat Mitchell last March as president of PBS. At the time, Mitchell said it was getting more difficult to secure funding with Congress repeatedly threatening to cut off finances.

Federal monies pay for about 15 per cent of PBS’ operating budget.

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