Latino director to enhance Ken Burns' series, `The War'

May 06, 2007|By San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO -- Hector Galan figures he must have been in the right place at the right time.

The award-winning filmmaker, who is based in Austin, Texas, met PBS President Paula Kerger in San Antonio at events scheduled long before Ken Burns' 14-hour documentary The War became the subject of a national controversy.

So Galan thinks he might have been in mind when discussions turned to who would help the network out of the crisis that developed when critics charged that Native American and Latino voices were excluded from the documentary about World War II. A half-million Latino soldiers served in the war, many earning decorations of valor.

"Hector is being modest," says Joanne Winik, PBS San Antonio affiliate KLRN president and general manager. "Hector has done a number of fine documentaries for PBS over the years. He's just a fine guy."

Recently, PBS announced it had hired Galan to work with Burns on new footage for the seven-part series, which will air in September.

Even before Galan's selection was announced, however, others already were turning to him. "We've been getting phone calls from people telling us about their husbands and dads," he says.

The topic is familiar for the WWII buff, whose father served in the Army Corps of Engineers. The discussions are exciting, he says, and his relationship to Burns positive. "I respect him, and he respects me." From Austin, Galan answered a few questions.

Why were you selected to assist Burns?

I have a long history with PBS. Lots of my films have had a home there. So that, in combination with the fact that this is one of my passions. Ken also called me.

When and how did PBS approach you?

Everything happened fairly quickly, within the past three weeks or so. I had become aware of the complaints from the community and the issues they were raising. I was working with PBS on another project. It was a natural thing that they contacted me. But mainly because I'm a Latino, and I'm very familiar with the subject and know the people involved.

What will be your role and title on this project?

We haven't gotten to the specificity of titles. But I want to be clear:

This is a Ken Burns film. I'm not here to step on it or change it. I've seen the series, and it's a stunning series. It's probably the best work Ken Burns has done. And there are lots of images of Latinos in the series. However, their stories aren't there. He didn't set out to exclude Latinos.

Will you create separate segments to be added to The War?

Yes. We will be shooting new material that will be incorporated into the existing series. It will be seamlessly put into the series. It's not a sidebar or at the end - that's my understanding. The series is not being recut.

(Activists are charging that PBS plans to add footage during station breaks and at the end of the documentary, and Galan acknowledges their concerns.) It will be enhanced. The film is beautifully shot, and we don't want this new material to look different or added on. That's the challenge.

What are some of your initial ideas for the project?

Those are evolving. The key things in any film are the storytellers, the characters, the human stories that tell this incredible period of WWII on a human level. We're finding those storytellers to tell the Hispanic experience.

Will the 14-hour series grow in length?

Probably. ... [New footage] will be incorporated into the whole series. It will increase the running time. We're not going to shoehorn it. Latinos and Native Americans will be represented. They will get the respect and dignity they deserve.

In which cities will you be shooting new material?

Ideally, one of the cities [in The War] is Sacramento, Calif., so somewhere around there would be great, but not necessarily. We're looking at a story in San Diego. It could be anywhere: Texas, California. ... What's going to drive it is the story. We're not just looking for interviews, but archives and other material. It could be anywhere in the Southwest actually.

What are your impressions of the series?

I spent the whole weekend watching it. I was just amazed at the amount of work that went into it. They put a lot of effort and love into it. After watching it, and seeing Latinos everywhere, their voices would make it even more extraordinary.

Were you uneasy about getting in the way of another filmmaker's artistic independence?

No, I wasn't uneasy, not in this particular project. Because I'm a Latino. Had [Burns] resisted, I would have left it there. But he agreed it was the right thing to do. This battle has been going on for a long time, not only with PBS, but the whole Hollywood system and the networks, in trying to get them to incorporate the Latino experience in everything.

Were the critics unfair on any level?

No. They weren't. I was one of them. So it wasn't unfair, and I've been quoted. I'm proud of the people who brought this to the attention of PBS, and I'm proud of the results.

Will PBS change?

As far as PBS is concerned, we're on the dawn of a new era, more so than I've seen in the past. I've been through a lot of PBS presidents. (Laughs.) I think you're going to start seeing a lot more high-profile Latino programming. How did PBS handle the controversy initially?

I don't think PBS realized how big of an issue this was. It was a learning experience for PBS, too.

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