Sunday, January 20, 2008
An Artist of the Broken World
Born and raised in Michigan, Emmy Award-winning producer/director Carl Byker began his film and television career in the 1980s as an award-winning editor. His outstanding work in non-fiction programming quickly led to jobs as a writer/producer and over the past eight years, he and his partner, cinematographer/director Mitch Wilson, have been responsible for a number of television's most acclaimed documentaries.
The team's productions for PBS include KCET's The Great War And the Shaping of the 20th Century, an eight-hour social history of World War I that won the 1996 primetime Emmy Award for Best Non-Fiction Series, as well as a Peabody Award, a Dupont Award from the Columbia School of Journalism and the Kodak Vision Award; The Duel, a film about the deadly confrontation between Hamilton and Burr; and The Human Quest, a four-part KCET production that traced the evolution of the human brain, for which Byker won a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Non-Fiction Program.
Byker also won a Writers Guild Award for KCET's Power in the Pacific, the first programme he ever wrote, and has earned a total of four WGA Award Nominations. His additional credits include The Tree of Life about the new window on evolution provided by DNA research; KCET's Secret Intelligence, which won a Peabody Award; and The Pacific Century, an eight-part series about the evolution of American relations with Asia, which earned a Dupont Award.
Byker's current projects include a three-hour history of Woodrow Wilson, produced by KCET for WGBH's American Experience series, which will air in the spring of 2002, and a four-hour series on the origins of Judaism, Wrestling with God, which will be seen on PBS in the spring of 2003.
Can you please tell us a little about The Great War And the Shaping of the 20th Century, which won the 1996 primetime Emmy Award for Best Non-Fiction Series?
The Great War was an attempt at looking at one of the most important moments in the last 150 years through a different lens not through war on the battlefields not through military commanders moving tanks, but how it shapes society, how it affects average people. And so the film is really driven through stories of individual people, women at home; soldiers in battles where 50 thousand people died, describing what happened to them. And it paints a picture of the war that was good for nobody, that was bad for all sides, and really set the stage for Stalin in Communism and for Hitler in Germany, and set the stage for a 20th century that was pretty bloody and grim.
So you try to depict the role of an individual in history…
Yes, or the impact of history on an individual, or how an individual has to deal with the sadness, pain and pathos that individual go through when faced with events beyond their control.
How important do you think history or reinterpretation of history is in this world?
Oh it is very important. I think Bangladesh is an example of it. Just agreeing on what happened in a particular moment of history can be so controversial. How you interpret that moment depends on what is your political perspective might be. And so I am fascinated by among other things just laying out what we know, the people of the time… what they wrote--and what we can learn from that.
What I actually meant is that from traditional history we know very little about ordinary people.
That is exactly what Great War was about. It is an eight-hour programme and each hour is divided into six sections and each section is about an individual, sometimes a nurse, who was at the battlefront or a soldier or somebody back home.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that a documentary filmmaker faces?
I think the biggest challenge is in fact raising the money. It is so hard to raise the money for topics that may be important but may not be as sexy as the American Idol or Bollywood or Hollywood. So finding the funds so that you can embark on one of the important stories that can inform the public that may be very challenging.
Let me quote you. You said this about the making of “Woodrow Wilson,” a biography of America’s 28th President, for the PBS series “American Experience”: When I read the scene about the night that Wilson becomes president and there are people with torches coming into the yard, I knew that would be something that would work for us. Because we’re always looking for an abstracting element . . . a torch, a fire, a window, glass, anything that can make it seem a little bit more like you’ve been transported to a different time and place." What are these abstract elements like? How does one recreate history? Is it really possible to do so?
This is true in my history films, because often we are trying to do something that a feature film is trying to do. It transports you to a different world so you forget that you are in your living room, we do not have a hundred million dollars to fill the scene with many extras or period cars. All we have is a limited budget. So we have to find a way to transport you using cinema art, making the flame a dominant theme, people move beyond the flame and you are not really aware that its really ten people moving back and forth in costume, often it turns out that working this way can turn out to be as moving and as gripping as any other major films.
But it raises a question. Where is the line really drawn between realitys and fiction drawn?
I have just finished filming the biography of the 7th American President Andrew Jackson, he is entwined with one of the epic moments in American history. Like he is the one who has sent the native Americans into the wilderness, some of them died and many Americans think of his American Hitler almost. There is an important history tell, but there was no photographs and no archival footage. So what we do is to browse through the writings of that time and trying to find out the costumes of that time to transport you to that time. There was a riot in the White House at his time; it is actually very famous in America, 20 thousand people rioting inside the White House in 1828. And so that’s an important story to tell and we recreated that pretty effectively with our resources and of course we are manipulating the resources to recreate that. The line is there for everyone who makes documentary.
Why do you think democracy and economic development are linked as your The Fight for Democracy suggests?
I think they are closely interlinked. Despite we may wish that democracy means just voting, the fact of the matter is it takes the civil society to create democracy. In SK , which the film was about, it was the case where the masses of people have investments in the society, where people had little power until they had a little amount of economic stake. It was until that the economy of the country was dependent on a pretty robust middle class that middle class could demand things. At that point of time middle class could stand and say that now or we will occupy the streets. And that point the government had to say okay we give in, because there was enough of a civil society and people had assumed enough control of the economy, and the people in power had no other choice but to listen.
Photo: The American Center
© Ahmede Hussain