September 7, 2012
By Matt Palmer
It’s been a while since I have watched a Ken Burns documentary, but he is a brilliant storyteller. I remember first hearing about his seminal series on the American Civil War in 1990, and I thought it was going to be a dry and boring piece. Yet, he made that story come alive.
When I teach documentary to kids, I use clips from the opening of the “Civil War”, and one of my other all-time favourite documentaries, also by Ken Burns, his nineteen hour history of “Jazz“. The openings of both documentaries, immediately pull you into the story, and demonstrate the power that image, voice, music and narrative have in communicating transcendent truths.
In the wonderful video above, Ken Burns talks about the importance of story and truth, and what makes a good story for him. Burns is not interested in stories about 1+1=2, rather he searches for narratives that are about 1+1=3. He is not interested in simple, linear narratives, and neither am I.
The great French New Wave auteur Jean Luc Godard said “Cinema is truth 24 frames per second.” Burns counters that it also lies 24 frames per second. “All story is manipulation.” says Burns. We tell stories through many different filters, from the journalist, writer, or filmmaker to the editors, producers and news team, each influenced by their moral and ethical worldview.
Writers, filmmakers, journalists make many decisions that influence the final story. The angle of the story, the phrasing of a sentence, and structure of an argument, where to place the camera, how images and interviews are edited, what questions are asked, and what ones are not asked, and finally how the story is presented to the intended audience.
These days we hear lines like, our narrative will not be determined by the fact checkers. We might be alarmed to hear a mainstream political party state this, but is this something new? We use stories to communicate a point of view, to present an argument, to espouse a philosophy. If all story is manipulation, in one way or another. how do we know what stories to trust?
The other night when Jon Stewart was interviewing Tom Brokaw, Stewart referred to Wolf Blitzer on CNN talking about checking with the fact checkers. Stewart rightly asked, if journalists are no longer doing the fact checking themselves, are they still journalists?
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s the three.” says Burns in reference to 1+1=3. Burns understands most stories, especially the big narratives of our times are messy. I interpret Burns statement as a plea for a systems thinking approach to big issues.
Over the past years in developing this story about global energy I have spent a great amount of time considering the issue of story, balance, truth, and transparency. I have often said or written that my goal is to tell a balanced story, one that examines multiple sides. It is about fairness. Of equal concern though is constantly searching for the truth, or at least as close to it as is possible. Truth trumps balance, but these days even issues that are clearly in the column of truth get questioned, like global warming. As frustrating as this might be, we need contrarians. The contrarians help keep us honest.
People like absolutes. Seeing the world as black and white is just easier. As Ken Burns says, he likes stories where the good guys have very serious flaws, and the bad guys are compelling and complicated. As I continue my research into the global energy story, the complexity of the issue fascinates me. There are no clear heroes or villains, because when it comes to harnessing any form of energy for consumption there are no free rides.
Consider then, as you finish this piece who are the villains and heroes being presented in the energy debate? One example is the current campaign by Bill McKibben aiming squarely at the evil oil companies. His reasoning: we need a villain to marshall the troops against fossil fuels and for alternatives. It makes the narrative nice and clean when you can target an industry that has much to answer for. But that is a 1+1=2 narrative.
Just as the narrative that all environmentalists are terrorists forms a clean 1+1=2 equation. These examples may make for a compelling story for the home audience, but reality is messier.
I will end with these last questions: what if we are not facing an energy shortage within the next 100 years? I’m not asking that question to ignore or deny that there are big challenges around production and distribution of energy, but those can be solved. Is there a bigger issue that everyone continues to either ignore or dance around? Because, there is an elephant in the room, but it is not evil oil companies, unless you subscribe to Colbertian “truthiness”. So, what story should we be telling when it comes to energy and the future of the planet? What is your truth? Join me on a search for the energy story where 1+1=3.