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Arts & Entertainment

Ken Burns on Balancing Fact and Fiction in Documentary Film

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

Ken Burns has been a documentary filmmaker for over 40 years, directing and producing critically acclaimed films such as The Civil War (1990), Jazz (2001), and The Roosevelts (2014), among many others. Ken’s films have been honored with dozens of major awards, including fifteen Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, and two Oscar nominations. In 2008, he was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Being a documentary filmmaker doesn’t just mean retelling actual events in movie form, the narrative must still be compelling. This often involves adding fictional aspects to your film in order to keep the interest of the audience. Documentary filmmakers may harness the same tools as any cinematic storyteller, but there’s an additional nuance to their task: they must balance their art with the truth. Ken maintains that there cannot be complete objectivity in any film, so it falls to the filmmaker to be their own moral guide in determining what should remain true, and what can be fictionalized.

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Ken Burns Teaches Documentary FilmmakingKen Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

The 5-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.

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Ken Burns on Balancing Fact and Fiction in Documentaries

There are times when the needs of your story can outweigh a strict adherence to literal facts. This threshold is different for every documentary as it depends on a variety of factors, such as subject matter, the period, and the subjects involved. Each filmmaker will have to decide for themselves how far to stretch their poetic license.

Ken shares an example from his film Huey Long, in which the eponymous character is described as being surrounded with bodyguards. In the photographs, however, they looked like regular men in business suits. To serve the larger truth that Huey, at this time, was becoming ‘increasingly dictatorial and autocratic,’ Ken sought a visually equivalent image, and settled upon a photo of Huey surrounded by National Guardsmen. While not factually accurate (the Guardsmen were not Huey’s bodyguards), the photo was more emotionally resonant with Huey’s changing state of mind.

To keep his fact and fiction balanced, Ken Burns uses a blend of archival and newsreel footage, documents, photographs, and subject interviews to source information for his films. However, the issue with truth in historical documentaries is that witness accounts can sometimes be unreliable. Memories fade over time, and certain details may be lost or changed unknowingly. When balancing fact and fiction in documentary film, an important area to mind is when subject accounts contradict the factualities of the time. Your task as a non-fiction filmmaker is to ‘trust but verify’: to authentically represent the different emotional experiences of the human subjects in your film, while also staying loyal to factual records.

Truth itself is subjective, as it is defined by a person’s experiences and shaped by their perspective, which means there are various “truths” that can exist regarding the same event or moment. Objective truth may be impossible, but there is a greater truth of human emotion that Ken strives to enliven for audiences. He sees truth telling as a process akin to emotional archaeology, trying to unearth the experiences of individuals that have been buried by history.

Documentary filmmaking can sometimes involve complex matters, and even more complicated human subjects. Ken believes these areas should not be shied away from—in fact, they should be embraced. When balancing factual with emotional truth in your film, stay true to the complicated and contradictory nature of history, and don’t hide the flaws of your heroes or the human side of your villains. Every side of the “truth” should be explored, regardless of the filmmakers personal feelings about the situation. This can be an uncomfortable experience for some, as it may require empathy with people you fundamentally disagree with—or worse, reveal unsavory traits about beloved past figures.

If the facts are in doubt, err on the conservative side with your truth claims. At the same time, embrace the manipulation that is necessary and inherent to the process of storytelling. In the end, filmmaking requires an act of faith that a larger truth has been represented, even if every last detail can’t be verified.

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Want to Become a Better Filmmaker?

Whether you’re a budding documentarian or have dreams of changing the world, navigating the world of documentary filmmaking requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than legendary documentarian Ken Burns, whose 2017 film, The Vietnam War, paints an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In Ken Burns’s MasterClass on documentary filmmaking, the Academy Award nominee provides valuable insight into his methodology and talent for distilling vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives.

Want to become a better documentary filmmaker? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons from master documentarians including Ken Burns, Werner Herzog, and more.

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