Sarah Burns, 30, the daughter of noted filmmaker Ken Burns ("The Civil War," "Baseball," "The National Parks") knew her way around editing equipment at an early age, but the Yale American Studies major was "contemplating" law schoolshe says she "did well" on her LSATsbefore she was introduced to the Central Park jogger case, an "outrageous" miscarriage of justice in her view.
She developed a passion for the story while working as an intern at the now-defunct firm of Moore & Goodman. Jonathan Moore, a partner at that firm, has continued to represent the teens in a civil lawsuit filed after their criminal convictions were vacated.
Burns wrote her senior thesis on the case, and, after two years as a paralegal at the Moore firm, concentrated on expanding it into a book ("The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York's Most Infamous Crimes," Vintage paperback).
In discussions with her father and her husband, David McMahon, it was "so obvious" that they were going to turn her book into a film. For one thing, she said, it had the theme of race relations in common with many of her father's films. The film will have its public premier today at the IFC Center, the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Maysles Institute in New York City.
Meanwhile, the film itself has become part of the controversy surrounding the jogger case. Burns and her co-directors are fighting a New York City subpoena for out-takes. The city argues their advocacy has forfeited whatever journalistic privilege they might have had.
Q: Growing up, did you aspire to be a documentary filmmaker like your father?
A: I always loved film, but I didn't think I necessarily wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. I did spend a lot of time at the editing house, which was just a short walk from where the school bus dropped me off, and I got to see the process that went into making a film. But it took me finding a story I was truly passionate about to discover the way that I wanted to get involved in documentary filmmaking.
Q: Have you worked on your father's films? What do you admire about his work?
A: I used to sit in on the consultants screenings when I was a kid, and make my comments about what I thought. I remember making a suggestion about when to cut in on a photograph of Jackie Robinson for the original 'Baseball' series and feeling very proud when my suggestion was taken to heart. And later on, I spent some time in the summers working as an intern on various projects, helping out around the editing house.
I most admire my dad's ability as a storyteller. He deeply cares about each new story that he comes to tell and learns and adopts it with an incredible attention to detail and understanding of its importance in the larger scheme of things. And then he remembers it foreverhe can still quote Abraham Lincoln at length, and each project seems to inform all of the rest.
Q: What was your role in the production of 'The Central Park Jogger'? Was this project 'your baby'?
A: The three of us, my dad, David McMahon and I were all directors, producers and writers on this project. But I had already spent many years studying this case, first as a student and then while working on a book on the subject, so it's almost fair to say it's my baby, though I had a baby of my own while making this film and she's the most important thing in my life.
Q: Can you describe the genesis of the film? Why did you want to tell this story?
A: I spent the summer before my senior year in college working for a small civil rights law firm. The firm was working toward filing one of the civil lawsuits on behalf of the Central Park Five, and I learned about the case then. I had been only 6 years old at the time of the crime, so I had been unaware of it at the time. That summer of 2003, I met Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson, and became interested in the case and how it reflected the city at the time and also a much deeper history of racism in this country. I went back to school and wrote my undergraduate senior essay about the racism in the media coverage of the case for my American Studies major at Yale.
Two years after graduation, while contemplating law school, I decided instead to expand upon my essay and write a book, which was ultimately published by Knopf in 2011. Fairly early on in the process of writing the book we all decided that the story needed to be told as a documentary film as well.
Q: What was it like working with your husband and your father on 'The Central Park Five'? Did you ever argue?
A: It went amazingly smoothly. In our sessions in the editing room, where most of the creative decisions are made, we agreed much of the time. When we didn't, there was usually an odd one out and it was easy to back down and go with the majority.
Q: How long did it take to make the film? What obstacles did you face? Was it hard to get financing?
A: We were so incredibly lucky to be financed in large part by a foundation called The Atlantic Philanthropies, among other sources.
Our biggest obstacle was not raising money but gaining access to those we would have liked to have interviewed. We tried many times to invite the prosecutors and police who had worked on the case to sit for interviews, but no one would, citing the ongoing civil suit.
Though we shot a few interviews before we started production, the bulk of the work took place over the course of about 2 1/2 years, from late 2009 to early 2012.
Q: The core of your film is in extensive interviews with members of the Central Park Five. How did you persuade them to cooperate?
A: By the time we began working on the film and shooting interviews for it, I had already developed a relationship with the Central Park Five through my work on the book, so that made it much easier for them to agree to the interviews and to open up so generously about their experiences. They had all been willing to participate from the beginning of the book process, but it took some time before everyone was comfortable enough to talk about the more difficult and emotional aspects of the story.
Q: Did you attempt to interview the victim?
A: We did speak to Trisha Meili, but she understandably declined to participate. She wrote her own book that was published in 2003, and has focused on speaking about her remarkable recovery from a traumatic brain injury.
Q: In demanding out-takes from the film, one city official has suggested that your project is 'advocacy, not objective journalism.' Should documentary film makers take sides in the events they are portraying? Do the Five deserve compensation from the city?
A: It is a distortion of our efforts to suggest that the film is anything but objective journalism. I think the film speaks for itself in that regard. The civil suit is mentioned only in passing, at the very last moment of the film. We were working with the same facts that led District Attorney Robert Morgenthau to advocate for vacating the convictions, and came to the same conclusions. Telling the truth isn't advocacy. On the other hand, advocacy can be an important, and legitimate, form of journalism, not just among documentary filmmakers but in general, and should not disqualify a journalist from the protections of shield laws. Some of the best journalism is by nature advocacy, from editorials and op-eds in newspapers to some of the best documentary films.
Q: Police and prosecutors refused your request for interviews. How did you deal with that in making the film? Was it possible to provide a complete account of the case without their participation?
A: We feel that we were able to represent the viewpoints of the police and prosecutors through their work on the original case, which dominated the media coverage in 1989 and 1990, and through their public statements and reports that came in the wake of Matias Reyes' confession in 2002. Though we were disappointed that we were unable to interview the police and prosecutors, we don't feel that it inhibited us from properly and truthfully telling this story.
Q: Why do you think that some police and news media continue to support the convictions?
A: I can only imagine that people continue to proclaim the guilt of the Central Park Five because they have some personal attachment to it. The facts simply do not support that conclusion, as the district attorney's office concluded. It turns out to be very difficult for people to admit when they've made such grave mistakes.
Q: Why would someone confess to a crime he did not commit?
A: This is not an isolated case, and it happens more than any of us would like to think. Though it seems irrational, it did happen in this case, and does happen in many others. I think there are many factors that lead to false confessions, but ultimately it's a simple equation. A suspect is so devastated, tired, terrified, vulnerable and broken down that he can be led to falsely believe that giving a statement will get him out of this terrible situation. When I began working on the book it was the first thing that I researched because it's so hard to understand, but it happens all too often.
Q: The film and your book suggest that the case of the Central Park Five arose from a climate of racial animosity in 1989 New York. What have we learned? Could the case happen again?
A: I do think that it was so easy for people to believe that these kids were responsible for this heinous crime in part because of the racial animosity and tension in the city at the time, and fears about the ever increasing crime rates. But though New York is very different today, I have no doubt that something like this could happen again. Not enough has changed, and I think that the same underlying racism could easily lead to more cases just like this one.
Q: Do you see echoes of the Central Park Jogger case to the current controversy, and lawsuits, over the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policies?
A: Absolutely. Our current problems with the city's stop-and-frisk policies reflect the same dangerous assumptions about people of color and our inability to confront those problems.
Q: At the end of your book, you express dismay that politicians and the media continue 'without reflection or remorse' to use 'animal terms to describe disorderly minority teenagers.' Do you think that the film will help change that?
A: I hope so. One important goal of the film is to create more awareness about exactly these problems so that we can get them out in the open and start having a frank discussion about them.
Q: What is your next project?
A: We're still very busy with this one, but next up is a documentary about the life and times of Jackie Robinson.
@|Mark Hamblett can be contacted at email@example.com.