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What did, and didn’t, happen that awful night in Central Park

Ken Burns worked with his daughter and her husband on “The Central Park Five.”

yoon s. byung/globe staff

Ken Burns worked with his daughter and her husband on “The Central Park Five.”

On the night of April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old investment banker was raped in New York’s Central Park and left for dead. She was dubbed “the Central Park jogger,” and the case became a sensation. Five youths, ranging in age from 14 to 16, were arrested and charged. Four were African-American, one was Hispanic. Largely on the basis of videotaped confessions, they were convicted and sent to prison for terms ranging from seven to 13 years.

In 2002, their convictions were vacated when another man confessed to the crime and a DNA match proved he had committed it.

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In their documentary “The Central Park Five,” directors Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon, recount the story of the crime, the effect it had on an entire city, and on the lives of the five boys. The film, which opens here on Friday , also shows how the confessions were coerced.

Clarence Davis

The documentary tells the story of the famous rape case in 1989 when five young men (including Yusef Salaam) were accused and convicted of raping a woman in the park but were later released when another man confessed.

“I’m so tired,” Ken Burns said over a bowl of dumplings at a restaurant near Fenway Park last month. Burns long ago became a cultural brand name, thanks to such PBS documentary series as “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” and “The War,” about World War II.

Burns’s latest, “The Dust Bowl,” had recently been broadcast. The night before, he’d presented an award to newscaster Tom Brokaw at Old Sturbridge Village. In an hour, he’d be appearing at a fund-raiser for the Epilepsy Foundation. “I’m 59 years old and a grandfather now,” he laughed. “What’s going on here? This is the busiest and most insanely creative I’ve ever been.”

Q. Why this particular subject? Why now?

A. My daughter has been interested in this [case] for almost a decade. First as an undergraduate at Yale, writing a final thesis, then writing a book on it. As the first pages were coming out, it seemed really clear that there was a film there.

Q. Is it possible to divvy up credit?

A. Sarah was both a novice filmmaker and an utterly experienced one, having watched her mom and dad make films from the very beginning. Dave ran the day-to-day production. I did a lot of interviews. Dave did a lot of interviews. Sarah did a lot of interviews. We all made the decisions collectively, along with our superb editor, Michael Levine.

Q. There’s a jitteriness to the editing, especially to the first half-hour, 45 minutes. It’s so intense.

A. And consciously so, because that was the times. We were all kind of crack addicts, we were all kind of worried about what would happen to us on the way to or from work. Then it settles in the experience of the interrogations. It takes on another pace, with those videotaped confessions; then yet another, around the trial; and yet another, at their incarceration. Then you have this extraordinary denouement.

John Pedin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Kharey Wise as he looked in court when he was arraigned in the Central Park jogger rape case.

Q. Did working with family members feel different?

A. You might think, that movie has three directors: How bad is that? How many screaming matches? What Sharpies were thrown across the editing room? In fact, none of that happened. It was always clear what path [to follow]. Plus, it’s my daughter, my baby. I’d be sitting in the same room listening to her conduct an interview. I did my first interview on a sync-sound camera in January of 1972, and I still feel like a student. And here you are listening to your baby do it, and do it really well!

Q. The documentary tells a story that, in so many ways, is awful.

A. Awful.

Q. What I found most affecting was, from the point of view of a parent, inevitably thinking, what if my son had been one of these kids? Maybe the most powerful moment, for me, was when Raymond [Santana]’s father says —

A. “I sent him into the park that evening.” This has been very moving for me to work with my daughter. Also very moving to get to know these five —

Q. Who are such impressive men.

A. Incredibly impressive. With a noticeable lack of overwhelming bitterness. With a kind of weariness, but also wisdom. We’ve been out on the road with them appearing before audiences, and it suddenly felt as though we were merging families.

Q. Do you remember your response to the story at the time?

A. I do indeed.

Q. You were working on “The Civil War.”

A. In New York editing “The Civil War.” And I’m walking every day from 84th Street on the West Side down to a 44th Street editing suite. And at the end of the day walking back and thinking, “Man, we’ve really lost our cities. This is it.” And I stayed on Broadway. I made a choice not to go on Eighth Avenue for part of the trip, which would have been a little shorter. We were all making that kind of calculus [of personal safety]. Because we bought the story.

Q. Does this film feel like a departure for you?

A. There’s no narration. What film of mine do you know without narration? There’s a different editing dynamic, and that’s really Dave and Sarah. This could have easily been a four-hour film, a two-part thing. They were like, “No, let’s make it two hours.” It meant a lot of stuff was sacrificed, a lot of stuff didn’t get in. But it’s a better film for that. At the same time, what’s at its heart is what’s at the heart of “Statue of Liberty” and “The Civil War” and “Baseball” and “Jazz” . . . and even “The National Parks” and “Prohibition”: race. So I didn’t feel I was outside my comfort zone. “Branding” is the contemporary word, but style is the authentic application of technique. That is to say, each film represents hundreds, if not thousands of problems. And you solve them by the application of technique. If you do it authentically, organically — just as you can recognize a Cezanne, you can recognize, “Oh, that’s a Ken Burns film.” This film is me, too.

Q. Why a theatrical release?

A. Sarah and Dave were committed to that from the beginning. And I had a theatrical release with “Huey Long,” a 90-minute film, back in ’85. I hitched my wagon to public television, without any degree of hesitation, and, looking back, without any second thoughts. On the film festival circuit, a few thousand people see it, and we’ve been to the best. When it’s theatrical, you get tens of thousands, if you’re lucky. I get tens of millions of people, and we will get tens of millions of people when this is broadcast on PBS, in April. So to us it was just another way to remember we’re filmmakers, that I believe in the sacred communion of strangers in dark rooms — not the half-lit living room with 1.4 people watching TV. Now maybe it’s .9 [laughter], though I’m not quite sure how that demographic works. Multitasking?

Q. You’ve been making documentaries now for more than 30 years. How has the field changed and not changed?

A. Documentaries have gone from something that was threaded up in eighth grade and permitted you to sleep to this form that seems much wider than Hollywood. Right now you look at Hollywood and go, “You gotta deliver so much bells-and-whistles to that same-old, same-old plot,” of which there are maybe four or five that they use. Whereas documentaries seem infinite with possibilities. And the variety between say, Fred Wiseman, with cinema-verite, for five decades; Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore, with advocacy; the highly stylized, rigorously intellectual pursuits of Errol Morris —

Q. There are a couple of moments in the movie where I found myself thinking of “The Thin Blue Line.”

A. Yeah.

Q. I have to assume that wasn’t conscious.

A. Not at all. But since we had no footage of the interrogations, we needed to vamp, in a way. So we re-created two different interrogation rooms. But it works, it works, and I love that.

Q. As regards to documentary as a field —

A. We’ve seen huge changes. The acceptance of it, the technological revolution — though I always add an asterisk. People still have to know how to tell a story. It’s like the hunter-gatherers. Somebody still has to cook that food when you bring it back.

Interview was edited and
condensed. Mark Feeney can be reached at feeney@globe.com.
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