Dayton Duncan on The Dust Bowl
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Making a Ken Burns documentary isn’t a matter of creating a story and then finding the interview subjects and visual elements that will tell that story.
It’s the other way around.
“What we love about what we do is to get to know our topic, then figure out the best way to tell that story,” said Dayton Duncan, writer and producer of Burns’ latest PBS documentary, The Dust Bowl.
“It’s slower to work that way, but I believe you end up closer to the truth.”
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The two great stories of America, according to Burns and Duncan, are race and space.
Duncan said the films he collaborates on tend to gravitate toward questions of space.
“Not outer space,” he says, “but the sheer physicality of this continent and our relationship to it.”
That was the topic that has informed other Burns/Duncan documentaries like Lewis and Clark, The National Parks, and Horatio’s Drive (about the first automobile trip across the USA). It is again front and center in The Dust Bowl, which explains how decades of overplowing on the Great Plains led to ecological disaster in the 1930s.
“All these films reflect my deep interest in exploring our country,” Duncan says. “How we interact with the land, how the land shapes us as a people, and our impact on the land.”
Duncan calls The Dust Bowl “about as stark a parable as you could come up with. It has imbedded in it the lesson that you need to take care of the land, you need to listen to what the land is telling you. And you have to look ahead to what Mother Nature will be doing.
“And it’s also about human nature. About not paying attention.”
Back in 1990 while he was researching his book Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America’s Contemporary Frontier, Duncan met survivors of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado. Their stories piqued his interest in the era.
”I grew up in Iowa hearing my mom’s stories of drought and grasshoppers, but none of that compared to stories these Dust Bowl survivors were telling me from same time period. Stories of gathering in a dark room at midday and stuffing rags in the cracks of the doors and windows to keep out the dust. And not succeeding.
“Stories about trains being stopped by drifting sand, and barbed wire fences that caught so many tumbleweeds and so much blowing dust that they in effect became solid walls.
“These storms could kill your crops, your cattle, and even your children. It became a story of the heartbreak of those who decided to leave and of the tenacity of those who stuck it out.”
Initially Duncan feared that the Dust Bowl survivors he had met 20 years ago would all be dead.
“But much to our joy and with the help of local public TV stations and newspapers, and senior centers, we met with a couple hundred people who had lived through it. They brought us their photos and their stories. And we chose two dozen of them to film, to be our on-screen witnesses.
“I think the youngest person we interviewed was 85. But this was such a cataclysmic event that these octogenarians’ childhood memories were as vivid and gripping as if it had happened yesterday.”
Toward the end of the second episode of The Dust Bowl, the film addresses modern ecological issues on the Great Plains, like the brewing battle over water rights.
“Much of the West has been described as ‘a semi-desert with a desert heart’,” Duncan says. “At the very end of the documentary we examine the issues the of the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies the Dust Bowl area. This underground river became the salvation of farmers, but it is also a crutch that they are over-relying on. At a certain point they will run out of water ... and then what?”
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes the Library's From the Film Vault blog. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.