Ric Burns interviewed about new PBS Indian history documentary

Historians in the News

Feature film director Chris Eyre has been giving a voice to contemporary Native American people ever since his 1998 indie hit Smoke Signals. Director Ric Burns has built his career on documentary films about innovators like Andy Warhol and Ansel Adams.

The two filmmakers recently teamed up to create We Shall Remain, a five-part PBS documentary that traces Native American history from the Mayflower through the 1970s. Mother Jones spoke with the two directors about Martin Scorsese, the US map that almost was, and how Hollywood usually handles Native American characters.

Listen to the interview as a podcast, or read a condensed version of the transcript below.

Mother Jones: Ric, you have a long history with documentary filmmaking, but Chris, your background is more with features. How did you both come together to film this series?

Chris Eyre: It was like an arranged marriage.

Ric Burns: It's really the worst idea you can imagine. I mean, to put two directors on the same project. But it worked out fantastically well. It's funny—I think some of the differences between feature filmmaking and documentary filmmaking are more apparent than real. In both cases a camera has to be looking at something that has conviction and power.

MJ: Chris, I was perusing your website this morning and I noticed many quotes calling you "the preeminent native American film director." I think the last one was from People.

CE: Yeah, I told them to say that and they were nice enough to. Really, I love making movies about native people because there's such an absence of three-dimensional native people in the mass media. We are nobles or savages whether you watch Walker, Texas Ranger or Dances with Wolves. So in We Shall Remain, what we tried to do is to make something slightly different. We didn't do huge battle scenes with stunt coordinators, because I feel like it's not my job to romanticize Indians; that's Hollywood's job, and it's been done ad nauseam. I'm more interested in portraying native people in ways that actually give us respect as just human beings. For example, people think they know the story of Tecumseh or Geronimo or the Trail of Tears, but we slightly step to the side of the conventional history and show these leaders as three-dimensional characters. Nothing is black or white, and these people are not romanticized as Indians who fight and scream and shoot arrows....

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