Filmmaker Ken Burns has already famously tackled classic examples of Americana, including baseball, the national parks, and the Civil War. His next documentary subject, however, is a bit more unexpected: cancer.
“What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?/ Or fester like a sore– /And then run?” Few poems retain such immense power for so long as Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred,” from which A Raisin in the Sun takes its title. And it’s fitting, since Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play also still resonates now, over fifty years after its initial production. And though many plays are produced or years after their debut, few actually inspire other playwrights to create entire other plays in response. Along with A Raisin in the Sun, the two plays written in response to it (Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Beneatha’s Place) form a sort of triptych—the “Raisin Cycle” as it’s being called. You may have caught the productions at Center Stage last spring. But you may not know about the documentary film that was made about the productions. The documentary, A RAISIN IN THE SUN REVISITED airs on PBS—and is screened where it all started—at Center Stage– this month.
If you happened to spend Earth Day inside watching TV, you might have seen Baltimore showcased in the new episode of PBS’s Earth: The Operator’s Manual. The episode, “Energy Quest USA,” shone a spotlight on innovative ways that various communities are reducing energy consumption — and it was a very welcome spot of encouraging news amid the general gloominess that’s out there.
The program focused on BNEC, the Baltimore Neighborhood Energy Challenge, a grassroots effort that tried to bring energy-saving tips directly to city residents, using a neighbor-to-neighbor communication network. In other words, BNEC neighborhood captains not only set up booths at block parties, they also went door-to-door, handing out energy-efficient light bulbs and even inviting themselves inside homes to give hands-on demonstrations of energy-saving tips. The program capitalizes on the idea that “knowledge about energy savings is contagious,” in the words of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Taking a cue from other cities, BNEC also made saving energy into a competition between neighborhoods — and were surprised to see who ended up winning.
Making a documentary about the Amish wasn’t easy. For one — and it’s a big one — the group forbids TV and has a moral taboo against posing for photos. Nonetheless, the project of documenting the simple-living, modernity-rejecting religious community has tempted plenty of film directors along the way. And they often turn to Amish expert (and Johns Hopkins University Press author/editor) Donald Kraybill for help. “[In the past,] I have always refused,” Kraybill says. “For me to go into the Amish community and try to persuade my Amish friends to violate one of the religious norms of their community would not only scar my personal relationship with them but could result in them being punished by the church.”
So when the directors of the PBS series American Experience approached him with the same old request — help us get access, please! — Kraybill gave his standard answer. Until the documentarians came up with a novel (and respectful) solution to the problem: they would record the voices of the Amish off-camera, but would refrain from filming anyone. In all, with Kraybill’s help, the documentary includes the voices of some 20 Amish people narrating the story of their communities — an unprecedented peek into a fascinating and insular group.
Kraybill served as program consultant on the film, which means he helped build connections, proposed stories, found information, checked facts, and critiqued a rough cut of the film. But, as he notes, “I offered ideas and made suggestions, but the director of the film controlled the content. Even a documentary, in the end, is an artistic interpretation of the subject. Only certain Amish stories were selected from dozens of possibilities.” (For those wanting a nuanced and thorough take on the Amish, an exploration of Kraybill’s books with the Johns Hopkins University Press would be a good start.)
The documentary is set to air later this month.