Ken Burns opens up about loss, grief, and storytelling
Written by Beyza Vural
Ken Burns, an American documentary filmmaker, has over 40 years of filmmaking experience, producing documentaries on topics ranging from the Civil War to baseball and jazz and U.S. presidents. Some of his work includes “The Central Park Five,” “Hemingway” and “Muhammad Ali.”
He was recently featured in an episode of On Our Minds with Matt and Faiza, our teen mental health podcast. Burns shared his journey with losing his mother at the age of 12 and coping with grief and mental health struggles as a storyteller.
THERE’S A YOUTH MENTAL HEALTH EPIDEMIC
In the episode, Burns who recently produced a two-part documentary about youth mental health called “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness,” said a focus on youth mental health is critical: “There’s an epidemic of it going on, not just among young people, but across the board as a result of the pandemic and just the challenges of a modern life.”
He said his own struggle with mental health was “instrumental in producing and telling this story.”
“IT WAS ALWAYS STIGMATIZED. IT WAS SOMETHING YOU DIDN’T TALK ABOUT.”
The filmmaker said talking about mental health is not always easy, even within families: “It was always stigmatized. It was something you didn’t talk about. It was something you hid. Mental illness at any age was something that people felt ashamed of.”
In his film, several young people were able to confidently tell their mental health stories in front of the camera, something Burns called “extraordinary.”
“A GOOD DEAL OF MY OWN LIFE IS BLESSED BY THE TRAGEDY OF LOSS.”
Burn’s own journey of coping with grief began when his mother got sick with cancer and passed away three months before his twelfth birthday. “Almost all of that time was filled with stomach aches and anxiety on my part, inability to go on field trips, all of that stuff.”
Burns recalled seeing his father cry for the first time at a movie, after his mother’s death. He explained how filmmaking provided his father an “emotional, safe harbor where he could express himself.”
He talked about how years later, during a conversation with his father-in-law, who is a psychologist, he noticed he has been using his storytelling as a tool to cope with grief.
He recalls his father-in-law saying “you wake the dead, you make Jackie Robinson and Abraham Lincoln and Louis Armstrong come alive.” That’s when Burns realized producing documentaries was his unique way of reclaiming the dead.
“So a good deal of my own life is blessed by the tragedy of loss. It has made me a better storyteller. It has driven me to explore the past. And as I think my late father in law implied, that it also was the animating spirit of why I was good at what I did.”
Listen to ‘On Our Minds’ wherever you find your podcasts, or click here.