Noted Filmmaker Ken Burns Talks to Undergraduates About Storytelling

Ken Burns Speaks at Event

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Austin Riddick (C’20), who is working on a documentary to help garner support for a person he believes is wrongly convicted, got the chance to ask questions about storytelling to renowned filmmaker Ken Burns. 

A select group of students was invited this past Thursday to join a session with Burns, who later spoke to a larger audience at Georgetown.  

Burns is an award-winning documentary filmmaker of numerous works that include College Behind Bars and The Vietnam War.  

The session, on “Conducting Interviews and Truth in Storytelling,” gave students a rare opportunity to ask an accomplished filmmaker about how to effectively tell stories on film.

Empathetic Storytelling

Riddick, a government major enrolled in Georgetown’s Prisons and Reform Project course, said the opportunity to ask Burns advice before he and his classmates create their documentary was invaluable.

“The insight Ken Burns gave about being empathetic in the ways in which to both elicit and tell a person’s story, especially in moments when it is painful, was very helpful,” says the undergraduate from Lumberton, New Jersey.

Groups of students in the Prisons and Reform Project course work on the specific cases of individuals for which there is evidence of wrongful conviction.

Riddick is working alongside two other students on the case of Edward Martinez, a man serving a 45-year sentence. 

Immigration: Views on Liberty

From left: Dean Chris Celenza, Richard Boyd, Kate Benton-Cohen, Ricardo Ortiz, Andrew Schoenholtz

Burns, who was most recently on campus this past March, spoke to a larger audience later that afternoon that preceded a panel discussion on Immigration: Views on Liberty.

During the talk he showed clips from his documentaries The Statue of Liberty and Unum and spoke about the repetitive nature of issues such as immigrant rights, race and gender in our country. 

“Mark Twain once said ‘History doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes,’” says Burns. “This is no different with the issue of immigration. We see cycles and patterns in our history and by looking at our history we can better understand ourselves and each other.”

The panel discussion included Katie Benton-Cohen, Richard Boyd, Ricardo Ortiz, Andrew Schoenholtz and College Dean Chris Celenza.

 For students such as Riddick and Céline Berdous, a French exchange student who attended both events, these learning opportunities are part of what makes Georgetown unique.

“These kinds of experiences offered by Georgetown are an honor,” she says. “They made me want to pick this university for my exchange year.”

by Shelby Roller

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