NH's Ken Burns screens 'Central Park Five' film

Union Leader Correspondent
April 07. 2013 8:43PM
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, center, with two of the Central Park Five, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana, talk about Burns' new documentary about the case at a Monadnock International Film Festival press conference at the Courtyard Marriott in Keene Saturday afternoon. (MEGHAN PIERCE PHOTO)

KEENE - Speaking to a packed house at the Colonial Theatre after a screening of "The Central Park Five" Saturday night, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns said he often marvels at how his films inspire people to action, to visit a Civil War battleground, a national park or the Brooklyn Bridge.

At this closing night event for the first annual Monadnock International Film Festival in Keene, Burns said he hopes "The Central Park Five" will inspire people to a different kind of action - to write a letter to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ask him to settle the civil case brought against the city for the wrongful arrest and conviction of five Harlem teens in the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger rape.

The film was written and directed by Burns, his daughter, Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon.

"The Central Park Five" is based on a book written by Sarah Burns.

At a press conference at the Courtyard Marriott early Saturday, Burns said he had been editing his documentary "The Civil War" when he heard about the brutal crime.

The 28-year-old jogger - who later identified herself as Trisha Meili - was not expected to survive her injuries. She recovered slowly, but never recovered her memory of the brutal rape.

Like most of the country, Burns did not question the immediate solving of the case by Manhattan homicide detectives who arrested a group of African American and Latino teens who had been in the park that night. Newspaper headlines said a "wolf pack" had been "wilding" in the park.

"Like everyone else I was stunned and shocked and believed what the newspapers were saying," Burns said. "I just bought, what I am ashamed to say, what everyone else bought."

What wasn't known by the public at the time was that the teens, ages 14 and 15 and one 16-year-old who was developmentally challenged, were interrogated for 14 to 30 hours until four of them confessed. Though the confessions contradicted each other, didn't match the crime scene and a timeline of events that night placed the teens in a different part of the park during the attack, the confessions were used to prosecute the teens and they spent between six to 13 years in prison.

In 2003, 13 years after their convictions incarcerated serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to committing the rape alone. When the DNA evidence that had never tied the young men to the crime scene matched Reyes, the convictions were over turned.

But their exoneration never got the media coverage their arrests and convictions did and their civil suit against the city has been drawn out by a city that says it won't settle.

"Most cases like this are settled immediately. We are coming up on a 10 year mark," Burns said.

The city recently attempted to subpoena notes and outtakes from the documentary, Burns said, in another drawn out search for inconsistences. "A federal magistrate thankfully rebuked the request," he said.

"Thirteen years later the truth comes out and it quickly gets swept under the rug," Burns said. "It's a film that kicks you in the stomach and it hurts. It's a film that's shameful to us."

Joining Burns at the film festival Saturday were two of the Central Park Five, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam.

Traveling around the country with Burns for screenings and question and answer panels has been healing for Santana, he said.

Having their story told for the first time is amazing, he said.

"Back in 1989 we were 14, 15, 16-years-old so we felt like the whole world was against us. We felt like this was one long nightmare that was never going to end," he said. "And to finally see our story be told, to finally hear the truth be told, that's what we were always seeking. We were seeking for the truth. We always wanted that, some way, somehow to be found.

"It's awesome. Now we know the world isn't against us anymore. It's definitely awesome to be a part of that. The film means a lot to us."

Salaam said the film has humanized them. When they were arrested and convicted they were portrayed as animals, he said.

The film is also "a teaching point," he said.

After the screening, Burns was honored by festival organizers as the first recipient of the Jonathan Daniels Award.

Daniels was a 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian from Keene who in 1965 answered Dr. Martin Luther King's call to join in the civil rights struggle in Alabama. A few months later he was killed in Hayneville, Ala., when he stepped in front of a vigilante with a shot gun attempting to kill 17-year-old Ruby Sales, a fellow activist and African American woman.

Organizers of the film festival created the award to honor artists whose work echoes Daniels' commitment to social justice.

They selected Burns as the first recipient because of his career's long work to bring social justice issues to light.

Race, though, is not a subject Burns sought out, he said. But whether his films are examining jazz, baseball, or the Civil War, "race has been a central part of the America narrative whether people want to deal with it or not and I have dealt with it in almost every film," he said.

Burn's Florentine Films is based in Walpole, where he lives.



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