Filmmakers count on survivor memories to cut through ‘Dust’

Three children prepare to leave for school in Kansas wearing goggles and homemade masks during the Dust Bowl in 1935.
Joyce Unruh/Green Family Collection
Three children prepare to leave for school in Kansas wearing goggles and homemade masks during the Dust Bowl in 1935.

BEVERLY HILLS — Award-winning documentarian Ken Burns (“The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”) sets his sights on “The Dust Bowl” in a two-part, four-hour film, premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. on Channel 2.

We sat down with Burns and his longtime collaborator Dayton Duncan at the Television Critics Association press tour to discuss the documentary and the dust. “There’s no way to soft-pedal it,” says Burns. “There’s humor in it. There’s heroism and perseverance, but this is the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.”

Q. How do you approach a project like this where the underlying theme is so downbeat?


Burns: You can’t downplay the tragedy of this. This is a 10-year apocalypse. So it isn’t just whatever your shorthand memory of the Dust Bowl fires off in your synapses: one storm, one picture, one novel. It’s 10 years of apocalypse, and so we have to do justice to that. But we’re also impressed with the people themselves, and more than any other film we’ve let the people themselves tell the story of what happened. And that is also about heroic perseverance, and that helps to mitigate a lot of the fact that this stuff is killing their crops, their cattle, and their children and they seem powerless which is, on its face, a downer. But almost all the great epic stories of the United States, whether it’s the Civil War, the Depression, the Second World War, it’s been climbing out of the worst possible situation.

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Q. What was the impetus for telling this story now?

Duncan: The impetus to do it now was simply that we’d been waiting to do it for a long time and were afraid that if we didn’t do it now we would be too late, in the sense that the generation that lived through it are going to be gone in a dozen years or less. It had been on our radar for quite some time. I did a book back in 1990 about the most sparsely settled counties in the United States which took me to that area where I met these people who told me these unbelievable tales about sitting in the house with a napkin over their face and trying to stuff the windows with their bedsheets so they weren’t choked to death by the dust enveloping them. And I read newspaper accounts of trains being stopped by drifts of dust and sand. And farmers took me out and showed me how the landscape had been rearranged. It was just beyond belief, and I could only deal with it a little bit in that particular book, so it was sort of on our to-do list. When we finished the [national] parks film we realized it was now or never. And, in fact, we left open the possibility that we wouldn’t do the film if we couldn’t find what Ken calls a critical mass of survivors. A young person for us to interview was 85.

Q. The people you found have such distinct memories and some are even older than that, which probably speaks to the vividness of the experience.

Burns: That’s a really important point that we want to make. These are very reliable, incredibly indelible memories that don’t need dusting off but are, in fact, present.


Q. What has the reaction been to the film? Do you find that people are surprised by the scope of it?

Burns: We’ve had the opportunity to screen it at a couple of film festivals and for large audiences and I think we come away with that kind of [reaction] that is part of our experience of making it. Because we don’t tell people what we already know, we share with them our process of discovery which is, “I did not know that!” Over and over again. That’s what our filmmaking is about it, it’s us going, “Whoa!”

Q. The film presents a whole host of factors that contributed to the Dust Bowl happening, but it does place part of the blame on unscrupulous promoters who appeared to reassure people that digging up these lands would somehow actually make rain fall.

Burns: It’s hard, though, to land in facile judgments of good and bad and who the villains are, because there are so many.

Duncan: One of the things that interested me about the story is this assessment of responsibility for it, which is there is no villain, it is our human nature, our arrogance, particularly an arrogance that thinks that nature is somehow directed by our desires and our wishes. That whatever it is that we want, nature and the environment will accommodate itself to it. That doesn’t happen.

Interview has been edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the air time of the documentary “The Dust Bowl.” It premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Channel 2.