Film Review/World Premier: The Address by Ken Burns

Have I mentioned this already? Ken Burns lives across a bridge from me? I see him nearly once a month? There is even a mural of him, and other notable New Hampshire residents, in the local discount/expired food store? Yeah. You heard me. Dented can emporium has a Ken Burns mural. I preface the post with this reminder because I actually got to see a film's world premier this evening in the middle of the stately green mountains of Vermont, in the odd beauty of a gorgeous renovated Greco-Deco theater (the same one I saw bats flying in last week!), brimming with an eager audience. And this fact makes no sense without knowing that one of the Godfathers of modern documentary is a staple at my local coffee shop. [Full Disclosure: I did a wee bit of volunteer transcription work for this film sometime last year but had no clue what it was for! Also, it was very hard.]

The Address is set to premier on PBS in mid-April and this one has some kind of ineffable spark that I can only hope translates to the tv sets of viewers like you! The film follows the students of The Greenwood School, a small educational haven in the nearby progressive village of Putney- a town so advanced it recently became completely town-owned solar.  Greenwood School is a private boarding school for Learning Disabled (LD) adolescent boys. LD children are often a marginalized group whose population continues to boom, The National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that there are currently 2.4million students with LDs, and despite the growing number the American educational infrastructure seems to remain unchanged. As The Address states early on in the film, The Greenwood School approaches LD students by looking at their strengths, not their weaknesses, and it uses those strengths to build not only their education but also as a foundation to build their lives upon. But the film was not just simply a heartfelt portrait of these inspiring, unique children and the committed community surrounding them. The title of the film references Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Each year the students of The Greenwood School set out to memorize this piece of American humanitarian history, a task that is as difficult as it is satisfying for these children, yet the importance of the exercise does not end there. Brief glimpses of Civil War history are interspersed throughout The Address contextualizing the significance of the speech and creating a silent yet omnipresent metaphor. By placing this historically weighted speech within the context of this forward thinking school the film takes on a much, much larger meaning: human struggle & need takes many forms and as humans we must create solutions in the name of dignity, respect and, most importantly, love.

This film felt like a departure from much of Burns' other work, a mood that I think was aided in the liveliness of the students but also the communal efforts of a very talented group of younger filmmakers within Burns' Florentine Films studio who spearheaded much of the project. The typical Burns' tenderness was present but the storytelling moved beyond the simple talking head or barrage of facts & panning of archival photos, the story was elevated into some kind of new digitally (I think it was digital?) floating cinema verite that was able to move about the subjects, freeing them in a sense. This physical un-grounding of the film gave it a buoyancy that propelled the importance of the film forward while still remaining true to the factual & emotional past that Burns' work is known for.

In the post film Q&A Burns made mention of the oral tradition of storytelling, of the loss of language based memory gone with the digital world uprising. He referred to our memories as our hard drives. He seemed wary of living in a world that is increasingly losing its human connection. With The Address, and also his recent iPad app & the larger Learn The Address project associated with this film, Burns has found a way to use technology as a vehicle instead of as a hindrance, to take the narrative tradition inherent in documentary filmmaking and use it to create a connection to eachother, to our collective past, and towards the collective well being of our future. And yes, I wept.



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