An Amarillo photographer's personal journey through the Dust Bowl- with past and present eyes.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

On the anniversary of Black Sunday - a brown Saturday.

I find it very interesting on the anniversary of the largest dust storm in American history - the winds whip up a good ol' fashioned duster.

Photo by Steve Douglass

Ken Burns in Amarillo to promote Dust Bowl documentary

By Chip Chandler
Filmmaker Ken Burns has trained his camera on some of history’s biggest moments: The Civil War. World War II. Prohibition.

Now, he has moved his focus to the people of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles with “The Dust Bowl,” a two-part documentary debuting Nov. 18 on KACV and PBS stations around the country.

“You just want to be able to tell human stories,” Burns said in an exclusive interview. “Sometimes, it’s Abraham Lincoln agonizing about how to prosecute the war. Sometimes, it’s the story of Jackie Robinson trying to make it in the major leagues.

“In this case, it was all these folks out in ‘No Man’s Land’ in the Dust Bowl, trying to make a go of it.”

Burns will arrive in the area Saturday as part of a weekend-long promotional tour, meeting with survivors and their families in Amarillo; Goodwell, Okla., and Guymon, Okla.

He and his producers conducted interviews with 26 survivors of the 1930s environmental disaster, including residents of Amarillo, Guymon and more.

“No one can appreciate (better) than those who lived through it,” he said. “Memory is not some distant thing, but present.

“When you see someone break down in their 80s over the loss of a family member decades and decades ago, you realize history is not a was, but an is.”

“It’s amazing to me,” said Linda Pitner, KACV general manager, “how they have captured the pioneer spirit, the tenacity of people of this area, the love of the land, the ties that people here have to this area.”

Archival photos and film footage fill out the stories, which tell of not only those who stayed in the area but also those who fled to California, where life wasn’t much better.

“I had always thought people who went to California had gone out there .... to the golden streets of California and made millions,” said Ellen Robertson Green, Amarillo city commissioner and host of KACV’s “Face to Face.”

“It was eye-opening to see that they had such difficulties out there and encountered so much bigotry there, too.”

Green will interview Burns on Sunday for a special airing this summer.

“I’ve been thinking about what I would ask him for about a year and been researching him for about a month,” she said. “I can’t think what I can ask him that nobody else has asked him. But I’m going to have fun with it instead of being nervous.”

Green has a personal connection to the documentary: Her mother, Pauline Durrett Robertson, is featured prominently, discussing how her father lost his business and his health during that decade, and how her mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized.

“I’ve always thought that my family had this great tragedy happen to it ... but when you hear the stories of other people, you realize that everyone was suffering,” Green said.

“A lot of people had nervous breakdowns, or committed suicide, even. It was emotionally and physically and economically tragic for so many people across this area.”

Burns will give a news conference Sunday with a Dust Bowl survivor interviewed by KACV for a series of spots that will begin airing in May. He’ll also present clips of the documentary at an invitation-only dinner.

He said he hopes the film will flesh out a story residents here have grown up hearing.

“It turns out much more complicated than you think. You find out about ‘dust pneumonia,’ the plague of jackrabbits and, later, locusts,” Burns said. “This is a story about Mother Nature, but it’s also about human nature, good and bad.

“Remember, this is a man-made ecological disaster, not just a bad time that happened to the area,” he said. “Humans do stupid things, and humans do heroic things.

“If you ignore either one of those things, you do it at your peril.”
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