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Courtesy Joyce Unruh/Green Family Collection

Ken Burns’ latest documentary, The Dust Bowl, vividly recalls one of America’s darkest times with the hope of preventing history from repeating itself.

In the 1930s, America’s Great Plains were famously decimated agriculturally and economically by a combination of human greed, hubris and almost ?constant dust storms that spanned the decade. Nearly five years in the making, The Dust Bowl — documentarian Ken Burns’ latest film, set for PBS broadcast Nov. 18–19 — will reveal one of the nation’s worst man-made environmental disasters through intriguing interviews, spellbinding archival footage, first-person accounts and crisp narration.

With several Midwestern states having suffered one of the worst droughts in nearly a century this past summer, the 59-year-old filmmaker, whose documentaries on the Civil War and World War II are widely considered masterpieces of the medium, insists the timing of his projects — each of which takes years to complete — is coincidental.

“People think I have a crystal ball or something,” laughs Burns, whose Oscar-nominated Brooklyn Bridge happened to debut on the eve of the structure’s centennial year in 1983 and whose Baseball miniseries ended up being the only game on television, coinciding as it did with the 1994 Major League Baseball strike. “When we decided to do The Dust Bowl, we weren’t twirling our mustaches saying, ‘Aha! This will come out the year the country’s parching again!’ We just know that history continues to happen, and people are bound to come upon the same storylines.”

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A huge dust cloud approaches a farm on April 15, 1935, in Boise City, Ok.
Courtesy Associated Press
For The Dust Bowl, Burns and his 10-?person staff conducted dozens of interviews with survivors, most of them now in their 80s and 90s, and surveyed tens of thousands of photographs, diary entries and newsreels. The film is energetic and elegiac — a definitive epic of a specific American experience.

“With all of my films, I’m just trying to get to the heart of the question, ‘Who are we as a people?’ ” Burns says. “I don’t know that the question ever can be answered, but it certainly? deepens. And when you ask it as sincerely as my team and I do, because we truly love this work, you will touch the Zeitgeist.”

Burns compares the process of making his films, which are often whittled from nearly 3,000 or more hours of raw footage, to wrestling with a Russian novel. But for him, the effort is worth it. “For a lot of people, these films are their best — maybe their only — exposure to certain portions of history,” he says. “Perhaps these films, which let audiences see and hear the way history happened once, awaken what [Abraham] Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature,’ so that, maybe, we can make better choices this time around.”