Renowned for his epic PBS documentaries, Ken Burns is aiming for his first proper theatrical release in 27 years with a controversial new feature. The filmmaker, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon, have jointly produced and directed The Central Park Five, a two-hour documentary about five New York teenagers whose convictions in the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger rape case were overturned after years spent in prison, and their current search for justice.
"We want to do it [theatrically] because the running time makes it manageable, and there's something urgent about it," Burns says of the film, which was completed in early April and premieres at next month's Cannes Film Festival.
The urgency is tied to wrongful conviction lawsuits — filed by the film's five subjects against New York City beginning in 2003 — which may finally come to trial in the next year or two. Trisha Meili, who revealed her identity in the 2003 book I Am the Central Park Jogger, lost her memory of the several hours before the incident and couldn't contradict confessions the five 14-16-year-olds (who had no prior criminal records) said were coerced. Each had completed long prison sentences before their charges and convictions were overturned following Matias Reyes' confession to the crime in 2002.
The filmmakers hope to capitalize on buzz from the film's Cannes premiere to attract the right distributor. One of the main financiers, PBS, has tentative plans to air the doc next year, but is open to a 2014 broadcast depending on its theatrical rollout. "We'd hope for some kind of harmonic convergence, where this story could be spread on the eve of the trial and potentially affect the outcome," says McMahon, a producer/writer on Burns' 2010 PBS doc Baseball: The Tenth Inning. "It would seem only fair, given that media coverage affected the outcome of the original trial."
The idea for the film came in 2006, two years after Sarah Burns began writing her May 2011 book, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding. When production began three years ago, it was planned as a feature produced by the trio and directed solely by Ken Burns. "In the end, those ultimate decisions made in the editing room were all of ours, so it became clear we should all be directors of the film," says Sarah Burns, who's been involved with the case for nine years. She met two of the men during a college internship at a law firm and also wrote her undergraduate thesis on the case. The film marks the 29-year-old's first effort on any documentary, McMahon's first helming duties, and has several distinctions from a typical "Ken Burns film."
"When people see there's no narration and it's really fast paced, they go 'Wow, this is a departure,'" says the elder Burns, whose last proper theatrical release (aside from a few brief Oscar-qualifying runs) was the 1985 politico biopic Huey Long. "It's a departure only in the most superficial way. In nearly every film, we've struggled to come to terms with America's original sin, which is race. One only needs to pick up the paper to read about Trayvon Martin, or look at the history books and the Scottsboro Boys, to understand that, unfortunately, it's not some unique story in American history."