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Exploring Prohibition-era America

Filmmaker Ken Burns previews his latest PBS documentary

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September 22, 2011 | by Matt Paolelli

AUDIO:Q&A with filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Filmmaker Ken Burns visited Northwestern University Wednesday to preview and discuss his new film, “Prohibition.” The three-part, six-hour documentary offers an examination of the social, political and historical aspects of the Prohibition era, when the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919 outlawed the sale of alcohol in the United States.

“This is a story running on all cylinders,” Burns said. “We understood it was not just going to be the superficial story of Al Capone and flappers but a much deeper dive into a complex American social, political and religious milieu that is very reminiscent of today.”

After screening about 15 minutes of the film, Burns and longtime producing partner Lynn Novick discussed their creative process in a question-and-answer session moderated by Associate Professor Brent Huffman of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Burns said this was his first trip to Northwestern in an official capacity, although his mother was an alumna. Her death when he was 11 years old is one of the main reasons he became a filmmaker, he said.

Burns said the primary lesson of the Prohibition era is that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” as many of the social problems explored in the film are still prevalent today because human nature has remained remarkably unchanged over time.

“What we lament today is an absence of a kind of civil discourse in our political and social lives,” he said. “The Prohibition era itself is a long, long era in which moral certainty—absolutism—had replaced the normal aspects of conversation.”

Burns and Novick agreed that their investigation of the time period uncovered a much more nuanced story than they expected.

“Our requirement is to do nothing more than to try to tell a good story,” Burns said. “Too often we do have this superficial view. It is just a paragraph in our textbooks. We do gloss over it. We do think we know it. We extend that arrogance to the past and don’t permit it to live as fully as we live today.”

“Prohibition” premieres Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. CST on PBS stations across the country.

Topics: Campus Life