Q&A with Ken Burns, Documentarian

The historical film icon talks about Prohibition, his evocative new three-part series on spirits and the 18th amendment.

In October, PBS will air a three-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick entitled Prohibition. The film is a detailed and fascinating exploration of the complex social and political events that led up to the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920 and set off an era of violent crime and widespread hypocrisy. Burns talked with Wine Enthusiast about the impact of Prohibition on our politics, our justice system and our most intimate relationships.

WINE ENTHUSIAST: What sparked your interest in doing this project?
KEN BURNS: It’s not rocket science; it’s always just being drawn to a good story. This is not just one, it’s thousands of good stories. We take a topic and try to cover it as much as possible. I live in New Hampshire, where we make maple syrup. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. That’s about the same ratio with filming a documentary.

WE: You title the three parts “A Nation of Drunkards,” “A Nation of Scofflaws” and “A Nation of Hypocrites.” And you begin the first episode with a quote from Mark Twain: “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits. Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky. It is the prohibition that makes anything precious.” Is it fair to assume this to be your take-away message?
KB: All of those titles are things people actually say in the film. It’s not our title; we’re selecting quotes. From the first to the last moments of the film we show the human cost of alcohol. You don’t have to point arrows at it—these are phenomenal stories. Too often we tend to have a superficial view of any era. Prohibition brings up mobsters, machine guns, flappers, but we’ve got a lot more in the film that’s extraordinarily interesting. It was important to find so-called ordinary people with their own memories and recollections, and we have that from all around the country.

WE: It’s fascinating to learn the origin of such common terms as teetotaler (from “total abstinence”), bootleggers (whiskey sellers) and scofflaws (literally those who scoffed at the law).
KB: I was particularly interested to learn about capital T-totaler, which began as a temperance movement and got metastasized into what was known as the “absolute shall.” Total temperance.

WE: You show how the advent of Prohibition quickly led to crime, bribery and widespread hypocrisy, even among lawmakers.
KB: I think this is inevitable when you have a situation where 10% of the population has a problem with alcohol, and impose a solution on the entire population. You leave yourself open to unintended consequences. Prohibition promoted a great deal of violation of the law, and the corruption that followed because everybody looked the other way.

WE: You profile some bootleggers who it seems were simply businessmen, not gangsters. They were addressing a need in the marketplace. Capitalism pure and simple?
KB: In the urban cities, bootlegging was the province of organized crime, which we would not have without Prohibition. But for many people it was simply a business opportunity. Most of the law violations were on a local level. It was a whole country saying “this is an absurd law,” which breeds contempt for the law. It’s important to note that this is the only Constitutional amendment that actually limited freedom; and the only one that was repealed.

WE: Do you enjoy a drink now and again?
KB: My father was a cultural anthropologist whose area of expertise was France; he had a phenomenal wine cellar. I used to be a great drinker. When I was working on the Civil War series I needed more time in my day and quit drinking, to add a few hours of work. I still will have a little wine, a little Champagne now and again.

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