By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007
Filmmaker Ken Burns reached an agreement yesterday with two advocacy organizations that have pressured him to amend his World War II documentary to include more material about Latinos' contribution to the American war effort.
The agreement between Burns's production company, Florentine Films, and the two Latino groups appears crafted to enable both sides to declare victory in the long-running war over "The War," which is scheduled to air on PBS in September.
After meeting in New York on Wednesday, activists from the two groups, the American GI Forum and the Hispanic Association of Corporate Responsibility (HACR), said they were satisfied that Burns would include interviews and other content about Latino American veterans, and that this material would appear "between the credits" -- that is, during the 14-hour, seven-part documentary.
The Latino groups had feared that these stories would be broadcast as a supplement, perhaps during breaks in the film or at the end of its multiple parts, in effect reducing the Latino role to an afterthought.
Burns had faced mounting pressure from activist groups, elected officials and several corporate underwriters over the lack of Latino representation in the film, which focuses on the wartime experiences of people in four U.S. towns.
Burns yesterday called the new content "an additional layer of storytelling" that does not tamper with "my vision" for telling the story of the war. But he offered no new details about how it would be used.
Several advocates who met with Burns this week said they were pleased that their concerns were finally being addressed. In an interview, Antonio Gil Morales, national commander of the American GI Forum, a Latino veterans group formed just after World War II, called it "a win-win situation for Ken Burns and our members."
Burns repeatedly insisted that "The War" was finished and that he would not reedit his work, characterizing it as an issue of practicality and artistic integrity. But he acknowledged last month that his film had overlooked the estimated half-million people of Latino descent who served in the U.S. military during the war. To address that, he agreed last month to shoot new footage and hired a Latino filmmaker to help him produce interviews and other material from the Latino perspective.
PBS and Burns, however, gave vague and sometimes conflicting statements about how that content would be used in "The War," fueling even more insistent protests from Latinos.
Members of the groups were vague yesterday in describing the terms of the agreement. They acknowledged that the agreement doesn't specify how many additional minutes of material Burns will add. Nor does it give the Latino groups a role in deciding what to include, they said.
In a statement yesterday, Burns said, "I am confident that [additional stories] can be incorporated in a way consistent with the film's focus on individual experiences and in a way that means nothing in the film that already exists will be changed."
The 12-hour meeting this week came amid a rising chorus of complaints about "The War." The Congressional Hispanic Caucus voted 20 to 0 last week to support HACR, an umbrella organization of 14 Latino groups, in its campaign to amend the film. In turn, HACR had recently notified Burns's underwriters -- including General Motors, Anheuser-Busch and several nonprofit foundations -- that it would hold them accountable if "The War" wasn't amended.
It's unclear whether any of these sponsors pressured Burns. The filmmaker, who yesterday was en route to the Cannes Film Festival, could not be reached for comment. Dayton Duncan, a longtime Burns associate who spoke on behalf of Florentine Films, said he didn't know whether any underwriters had been in contact with Burns.
Burns had heard from former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, author of the best-selling World War II book "The Greatest Generation," who was sympathetic to the Latino groups' viewpoint, according to one activist who asked not to be named because the negotiations with Burns were private.
Not everyone involved in the controversy was satisfied. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a University of Texas professor who initiated the protests against Burns last year and who leads a grass-roots group called Defend the Honor, was skeptical.
"I'm not sure how [Burns's] position has moved from what he said last month," she said. "In the end, if it really means that Ken Burns is going to include the Latino perspective in a meaningful way, then, yes, it's a wonderful thing. But until we get some clarification, we'll withhold judgment."