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6 août 2019 2 06 /08 /août /2019 13:08

Documentaries can be very different objects from one another. You can be given 52 to 100 minutes of screen time, on television or in theatres, to address a subject, and you will only partially get there. Every documentary is limited, like any film or book, by the time it takes to be viewed... It is to make up for this that Ken Burns has become accustomed not to limit his films in time.

And he takes eleven hours to tell us about the Civil War, that is probably the most significant conflict in their history, that so many false tales have been written about, more in any case than truths. The film starts from the context, that is to say by exposing the political situation of a Union created between 1776 and 1791, which has continued to expand but in which can be observed a division of civilization between, basically, the very industrial North, and the more agrarian South; the other aspect of this divide is, of course, the fact that the North is now free from slavery, and that the South, on the other hand, has based much of its economy precisely on this practice.

But when war broke out in 1861, everyone knew that it was inevitable, because it was a shock in which two conceptions of civilization, but also two types of economy and above all two different conceptions of politics, would clash... And these two philosophies are irreconcilable: the Northerners conceived the US as a union of states gathered around a central government. The union had to prevail over the right of states, thus giving the government the right to do what it has not wanted to do for fifty years: to tackle the problem of slavery.

And so the cause of the conflict was clearly this: since the government no longer suited them, the southern states threatened to leave the Union. If they did, that literally meant war... As we can see, there was ultimately no question of slavery in this political aspect. Besides, Lincoln said it: if to save the union he had to free the slaves, he willould. If, on the other hand, he needed to keep the men in bondage he would... The conviction, urged by the proponents of abolition who had supported the Republican candidate, that the emancipation of slaves was necessary, would only come later, in 1862.

Burns's story, compiled from all the existing documents, including an impressive mass of period photos, is exciting, and epic. Above all, it gives the impression of not forgetting anything, neither a point of view, nor a camp, nor a battle, nor a reaction. He also speaks about people: generals, politicians, public figures, heroes... but also nobodies, to which he gives the floor through the letters of soldiers and diaries made public; he favours the image, and especially period documents, so most of the footage is devoted to reproduction of photographs and paintings, but there's no problem getting used to this accumulation of still images, made dynamic by the use of mobile cameras. To complete it all, Ken Burns also interviews a few historians, who provide various insights according to their skills. Occasionally, Burns' cameras show us the places as they were on the time of making his documentary, 125 years later, without ever pushing for lyricism.

For the result, in nine episodes which make us relive event after event what some have called the birth of a nation, is exciting, but it also provides infinite sadness. None of the aspects of war is forgotten: patriotic delirium, the joy of victories, the distress of defeat, the anguish of waiting for someone who will never return, the expectation of death, death itself, rot, disease, dirt, destruction , the gradual loss of all dignity... No side emerges more demonized than the other, but if the fundamental racism that prevailed in the South is never ignored, we also witness the incredible nobility of Robert E. Lee, the Southern General who was a fine strategist precisely because he repulsed to to have his men killed, confronted to the radicalism of General Grant, a great statesman, but who considered that he had to pay the price of a victory in the number of casualties, and was considered by Mary Todd Lincoln herself to be a butcher... And if we see pictures of the northern prisoners who emerged alive but in very bad shape from the Southern Andersonville prison, the film also tells us of the massive « epuration » after the victory, to execute those who were accused of conspiring to kill Lincoln: to be the owner of the establishment where the conspirators used to meet, was enough to sentence you to death.

They say the habits change with time, but it's not so true: if indeed the Civil war has allowed a nation born of thirteen different states to come together and realize that indeed the country was indeed a single entity, the ending to these four years of fratricidal struggles has never been clear. There still is a North and a South, and as for the emancipation of slaves, if it has taken place, the fact remains that the equality of rights had to wait for another 100 years after the end of the conflict, and was still not satisfactory; and the election of Trump has shown that in the minds of the America, people, there still is division: the fractures that plagued the country in 1860 were not the only factors of division, and political, religious, social and ethnic division still prevail in today's America.

In short, Ken Burns' The Civil War is an indispensable, exciting, and exemplary documentary, which won awards wherever it was shown, and which is a recognized editorial success, followed by many others... Due in part to the fact that subjects of conflicts and controversial topics will never lack, and their story is always fascinating. Ken Burns's films (Jazz, Vietnam, The War, Prohibition...) are a unique, and exemplary, body of work : the way every documentary should be done.

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Published by François Massarelli - dans Ken Burns In English