“Who are we? Who are these strange complicated people that call themselves Americans?”
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns says he’s been trying to understand how our country works for thirty years. You never answer the question, says Burns. You deepen it.
He expands on these questions and others in his new documentary series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
Burns gave a sneak peak of The National Parks this morning at the Outdoor Industry Association’s breakfast. During the fifteen-minute opener that was shown, the audience watched raptly as lava flowed into the ocean. Glaciers calved. A lone bison plodded through the snow. A grizzly caught a salmon in mid air.
In a clip from the second episode, a Yellowstone ranger recalls a scene with a herd of buffalo one winter morning while delivering mail by snowmobile. He stops, turns off the snowmobile, forgets the mail, and simply listens. "It was one of those moments when you get pulled outside yourself,” said the ranger. "A moment in a place like Yellowstone can last forever."
While the documentary certainly contains majestic, inspiring scenery in abundance, it’s about much more than beautiful pictures. In it, Burns examines the history of the national park system—a uniquely American, democratic idea—and Americans’ relationships with that space. “It’s not just the immensity of time, but the intimacy, whose hand you’re holding” during those transcendent moments, said Burns.
“You and I own some of the most majestic mountain scenes. You and I own the grandest canyon on earth,” said Burns. “And the deal is, all we have to do is take care of it.”
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea took six years to film. Burns co-produced it with his longtime colleague, Dayton Duncan.
“I think it’s the best film we’ve done,” said Burns. It will air on PBS in six two-hour parts, starting September 27.