Ken Burns and Sarah Burns, filmmakers behind ‘Central Park Five,’ discuss the film and their fight with the city over it

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A scene from 'The Central Park Five.' (Courtesy Sundance Selects)
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On April 19, 1989, a brutal rape and assault was committed in Central Park that then-NYC-mayor Ed Koch would describe as “the crime of the century.”

The case famously came to be known as the Central Park Jogger case. The crime was utterly horrific, but in its aftermath, another malfeasance took place. A group of five black and Latino teenagers were arrested for the assault, a crime they didn’t commit.

The five served between six and 13 years in prison, and only in 2002, after almost all the men had completed their sentences did the actual perpetrator, Matias Reyes, a serial rapist and murderer who was already serving life in prison, confess. This eventually led to vacations of the men’s convictions, and brought to light the city’s mistake years earlier.

In a new film about the case, The Central Park Five, codirectors Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband, filmmaker David McMahonwho has been working with Ken for many years—closely examine this story and stick to a single, but very complex question.

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“Our mission in making this film was to figure out, ‘How did this happen?’” McMahon said in a recent phone conversation with him and Sarah from their home in Brooklyn. “How is it that five teenagers went into the park [one night], and then 30 hours later, had been taken into custody and confessed to a crime that they didn’t witness and were unaware even happened? And so that was the story we wanted to tell. We wanted to figure out how these false confessions happened.”

The film was born out of Sarah Burns’ book of the same name. After learning of the case at a summer job working for a small civil rights law firm and writing a paper about it at Yale in her senior year, Burns decided she wanted to get deeper into the story.

“Once I started working on the book I think it just became obvious to us that we had to make a film,” Sarah said in the same phone call.

“There wasn’t a sort of a-ha moment,” McMahon added. “I think it just seemed like a story that called for a documentary telling. The book is great, and the guys, who were interviewed at length for it, really come to life in there. This documentary would give us an opportunity to have them actually on-screen telling their own story, and we were excited about that.”

Though the film may seem out of character for Ken Burns at first glance, a closer look will show that it is, in fact, in line with the kind of subject matter he’s always dealt with, albeit from a slightly different angle.

“I’ve spent my entire professional life telling stories in American history,” Burns told me when I reached him by phone for an interview. “They’ve been complicated stories and difficult stories, and this is one of them. And whether it’s The Civil War or Jazz or Baseball or the story of the African American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, we’re interested in exploring every aspect of American history. And this is a hugely important moment in the history of New York City; it’s a hugely important moment in the history of the United States.”

Next month marks the 10-year anniversary of the Central Park Five’s acquittal. But a civil suit filed by the five against the city in 2003 remains unresolved to this day, leaving the book still partly open on this dark chapter of their lives.

“What [the city is] trying to do,” Ken explained, “because they have the resources and the money, and the institutional protectionism is so desperate there, that they want to wait it out; they want to tire these no-longer-children out.

(Above: Ken and Sarah Burns. Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images.)

“They’re in their 30s now," he continued, with some emotion. "In fact, Korey, the oldest, who was tried as an adult despite a developmental handicap—a hearing problem—is 40 years old! How long do they have to go before they get their lives back?”

And there have been further complications. In September, the city issued a subpoena requiring Florentine Films (Ken Burns’s production company) to provide the city's lawyers with outtakes and original research and interviews related to the film.

The filmmakers filed a motion to quash the subpoena the day before I talked to McMahon and Sarah, on the grounds that it's the equivalent of asking a journalist for notes in an investigation.

"We believe that we are protected, as journalists, under the shield laws, and that, as a result, the city has a pretty high standard to overcome in terms of demanding to see our materials," Sarah told me in our interview.

When I asked the city's law department about their subpoena, a spokeswoman send me a bunch of emails with boilerplate statements and information about the subpoena in them.

In one, under the subject "Info About the Subpoena," there is a list of 11 bullet points explaining the reasons they believe the subpoena is fair.

"We explained that the privilege does not apply, or is at a minimum severely weakened, because the documentary is not truly independent journalism, as Burns has aligned himself with the plaintiffs.  The material sought is also not confidential.

Another email quoted a prepared statement from city attorney Celeste Koeleveld:  

"Mr. Burns and his daughter have publicly sided with the plaintiffs and their families, who are seeking hundreds of millions from New York City.  Sarah Burns worked for years as a paralegal for the plaintiffs' lawyers, and Mr. Burns has stated multiple times, before and since the film's release, that his goal is to 'put pressure on the City to settle' and to influence the jury.  The movie has crossed from documentary to pure advocacy.  Under such circumstances, no reasonable person could have expected us to participate in their project. The plaintiffs' interviews go to the heart of the case and cannot be obtained elsewhere.  If the plaintiffs truly want an open airing of the facts, they should encourage the filmmakers not to hide anything." 

"Ultimately the judge will decide," Sarah told me. "But the city has sort of accused us of not being independent journalists, even though our film was made surely as a work of nonfiction. It is a factual work, and it is clearly journalism. So we expect the judge to find that we are, in fact, protected by those laws."

“I find it very suspicious that just as we’re releasing our film theatrically, just as we’ve had a triumphant march through several celebrated film festivals,” Ken said, “like the Cannes Film Festival in France, like Telluride, like Toronto, that they should choose this time now to interrupt our film. They knew about the interviews that we did three years ago; we asked them—the cops and the prosecutors—to comment, and they always hid behind this civil suit saying they couldn’t.

“But, in point of fact," he added, "they knew they couldn’t answer 90 percent of the questions we would ask them.”

I asked Ken whether they had ever considered giving the city lawyers the outtakes and research they were asking for, and he remains adamant.

“Never, never, never, never,” Ken said.

Among other things, in the subpoena, the Matias Reyes confession was quoted as though it hadn't been processed by the courts already and resulted in Reyes' conviction and the exoneration of the Five; as though it were an open point in the ongoing dispute between the city and the Five, or the city and the filmmakers.

And that, after all, is precisely what the Central Park Five's suit against the city is all about.

"So, there was never a moment that we said, ‘Let’s give [the outtakes] over.’ The state can’t just say, ‘Look, we want to go [dig through your material]’ every time they realize they’ve made a mistake."

“We’re not working for [the defendants]; we’re not working for their lawyers; we have no opinion on what a settlement should be,” Ken said. “We just believe that the case should be closed. It’s good for the five to get their lives back; it’s good for their families to get their lives back; and it’s good for the city of New York.”