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Arts & Entertainment

The Artist's Responsibility

Ken Burns

Lesson time 05:12 min

Film has the ability to bridge geographic, linguistic, and political boundaries. Ken breaks down the role of the filmmaker in society and their power and responsibility as an artist.

Ken 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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I believe it is the artist's responsibility to lead people into hell. But I also believe it's important to lead the way out. And I know I've had lots of disagreements with friends who are artists who don't believe it. It's just enough to show the hell. I don't believe it. I think that there are redeeming aspects to this horrific species that we need to constantly remind ourselves that we have the capacity for. We have to be as critical about ourselves-- more critical about ourselves than any one else. And we are never that. We like to think of ourselves as an exceptional people. And we are told over and over again how exceptional we are. Also we're also reminded by some weaker voices that our exceptionalism has often tripped us up. And I believe they're both right. Nobody, including the religions of the world, has contributed more than the United States government-- which is the whipping boy of most people in the United States, left, right, and center-- in terms of being able to create a Declaration of Independence, a Constitution, a Bill of Rights. This is a legacy of pretty extraordinary achievement. And at the same time, I'm willing to spend as much screen time describing the ways in which it has gone wrong. And I think it's important for everybody, as they begin their work-- as you begin your work-- to figure out how to balance the dark stuff. [MUSIC PLAYING] I feel, in my own films-- and I hope that you would in yours, whatever you would do, would have a multitude of perspectives. There's a huge point between demonizing and disagreeing. And that's hugely important to do. In "The Civil War," I demonized slavery, as it deserves to be. And I-- by extension, I demonized, I presume, those who sought to perpetuate it. At the same time, this was this institution that had been going on for centuries in the United States, and had a momentum of its own. I'm not apologizing it. It's nothing you can compromise away. It should end in one second and be done with. And we should begin to make repairs. But it didn't. And it's not going to do that. In the course of human affairs, interesting people populated both sides. And what I said was, here they are. This is what happened. And that you did not need to say, I don't need to listen. As we are now, today, in this area in which we-- we self-select for the news we get. We don't want to even hear what the other people are saying. I just said, that's not the way to understand. And I've kept that up in all of the films. We were able to tolerate the differences. It's not so much a dialectic. It's not an oppositional thing. It isn't one thing or the other. It's permitting both to co-exist. [MUSIC PLAYING] The great gift of cinema is its ability to cross geographical, to cross linguistic, and more importantly, to cross political boundaries. Now, it's not to say that a great film can't be made from a political statement. Our landscape is dotted with passionate films advocating ...

The drama of truth

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I am a independent film maker from North Carolina watching directors in these lessons make me inspired to keep doing what I love to do. Directing.

Meticulous, masterful, meaningful, memorable!!!

Ken Burns is not only a master documentary filmmaker - he strikes me as a man of wisdom, humility and humour and I have born truly inspired.

Amazing to hear directly from the horses mouth!


Phil N.

The lesson about the artist's responsibility was short but sweet. I am totally in tune with Ken Burns on preserving the integrity of the filmmaker-storyteller. Even though PBS is constantly the target of criticism of being slanted to the left, this shows how he is dedicated to presenting all perspectives, left, right, even those which he is vehemently set against, such as slavery. I am pleased that you wave your American flag proudly, so to speak, without shame for the America that some outside countries see because of the America which some of our citizens and representatives portray. I am also proud and thankful for our history and recognize the courageous brilliance of the founding fathers. You have honored the US military in so many of your films without the arrogance and entitlement of so many of our fellow Americans. Most of all, in our current context, thank you for your zero tolerance for fake news and for those who mislead readers-viewers for personal gain or ideological influence. Filmmakers are on the front line of influencing the population and it is a rare filmmaker who is capable of giving freedom of speech to views that oppose their own. This is the only way to fully understand a specific issue, a nation, or human nature in general.

Andrew K.

Is it the instructor's responsibility to answer student questions and provide feedback on student assignments? Why has Ken in 4 months not answered a single student question or provided feedback to any student assignment? I find this Masterclass hypocritical.

David C.

First impression, this is the most powerful of all the Classes. They are all wonderful, but this one... You have an amazing spirit, Ken. Thank you!

Nathan W.

I like the way Ken condemns things that are wrong - like slavery - but does not demonise people. He presents all views and simple says this is what happens. If we all adopt his attitude their would be a lot more peace in the world. We don't have to agree, but we don't demonise people either. I hope I can do the same in whatever project I am making.

Michael O.

I'm of 2 minds here. One, when I direct plays, I encourage actors to develop 3D characters, using storytelling techniques. The actors go on to present multi-faceted, many-layered people, which in turn engages audiences in their personal many-layered personalities. Two, I cannot personally abide public leaders who rabble rouse a constituency to racism, violence, misogyny, and when I present them on stage or in video, I skewer them as best I can. For me, giving the KKK and those who enable them a fair hearing - either now or in the past - is unthinkable. Nothing can justify the choices they made/make. At bedrock, I do believe and embrace what Ken espouses here about the social responsibility of the filmmaker. It's not enough to guide me into the heart of darkness, you've got to light the way out.

Meg N.

Again, totally awed by Ken Burns' class content. I wish I could share THIS one online in social media, which has become anti-social in some areas, and needs to consider, how do we talk with someone with whom we strongly disagree, and make it a shared story..

Sunny N.

History is our story if we include a variety of points of view...our shared story and our shared future. And it is our desire to see our shard future that will help us survive all that threatens our shared present.


Amen. Mr. Burns, please continue to help us heal as a nation. By the way, we do need to re-write history, especially if we value the truth. There was too much hidden to protect the guilty. Thank you, Mr. Burns

Bob Z.

Thank you Ken. We just need to tell the stories and not try to re-write history. If you are left or right the stories need to be told, but not made up to make a political point. If they want to, I guess they can because we have freedom, But I want the truth and would only want to put the truth in my films. Plus ,I won't go protest some movie another filmmaker made because I don't like their viewpoint. Ken Burns has done a great job of telling America's history. Thanks Ken

J.C. S.

I haven't found too many other documentaries that have shared Ken's exuberance for showing opposing points of view on a particular subject, except perhaps the great Swedish documentary aired several years ago, The Donkey's Lament. This classic work, another by the great Lamont Brothers, depicting the impact of the vegan lifestyle on the typical Swedish farm, discusses it's topic from both points of view in a disarmingly eloquent narrative that captures the plight of the cow and pig, chicken and lamb, that have their lives spared by the decline in the consumption of meat as seen from the viewpoint of a donkey. In one poignant scene after another, these animals interact in ways that most humans could only dream of emulating, as the donkey first fears for their early demise, and then rejoices as their opportunity to grow old together becomes reality.