A group of Trinity College students recently attended a Connecticut Forum discussion with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

Vy Duong ’26 was part of the group that enjoyed a night out in downtown Hartford on Saturday, November 18, that included dinner and a visit to the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Duong, from Thanh Hoa, Vietnam, is double-majoring in political science and film studies and works as a social media associate (SoMA) for Trinity’s Office of Communications and Marketing.

“I grew up around the stories and tales from my grandmothers and my parents, so I guess that’s what nurtured my passion for storytelling. Being a young adult now, I think that has translated into a lot of my hobbies: writing, photography, and definitely into this position I hold as a SoMA,” Duong said.

Below is Duong’s reflection on the evening:

Ken Burns
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns on stage at the Bushnell Theater in Hartford for the Connecticut Forum on November 18, 2023. Photos by Nick Caito, courtesy of Connecticut Forum.

Ken Burns is one of the most renowned documentary directors in America. His work covers a great variety of subjects, from country music, jazz, and the Brooklyn Bridge, to the Vietnam War and the Civil War. As a Trinity film studies student, I recently got to listen to Burns in a talk hosted by Connecticut Forum. Joining me for the outing led by Jeffrey Bemiss, visiting associate professor of the practice in film studies, were seven other students who also share my passion for films and wanted to learn more from the legendary director.

Before going to the Forum, we grabbed dinner at Black-Eyed Sally’s, a restaurant near the venue in Hartford. Most of us did not know each other beforehand, so this was a great time and space to get to know each other. We enjoyed the good food and good conversations. I also had a chance to attend a similar event last year, when Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor had a virtual talk with the Connecticut Forum. I had a good time making new friends as a first-year student just freshly coming into college life.

CT Forum Ken Burns
Trinity students at Black-Eyed Sally’s before the Forum. Photo by Vy Duong ’26.

After the delicious dinner, we headed to the Bushnell, where the talk was held. It was not my first time there, but the architecture and design inside the theatre always intrigued me. We settled in just as the conversation between Burns and the moderator, journalist Audie Cornish, began. She started by asking Burns about his “blind assembly” method in documentary filmmaking, which, to my understanding, is “audio first, footage second.” Burns described it as how in the first stage of making a documentary, he would listen to the audio narration and then let his imagination roam, as a way to better incorporate the visual elements of the documentary film. We were also shown clips from Burns’ films.

Cornish, who was extremely elegant and witty, posed interesting questions to Burns regarding a multitude of subjects, ranging from Burns’ process of making movies, to more abstract questions regarding American history, the nature of truth, and more, all of which Burns answered to great depths.

Journalist Audie Cornish speaks with Ken Burns on stage at the Bushnell Theater in Hartford for the Connecticut Forum.

There were two things that greatly resonated with me. First of all, Burns believes the reason why documentary films have to be so complex, with many undertones and nuances, is to reflect the completeness of the human experience. Everyone’s life is not just all black and white, or “binary,” as Burns often put it in the talk; that’s why it’s imperative that we delve deep into each event or phenomenon, in order to understand what everyone goes through.

The concept of faith also struck me. When asked about young people, Burns offered great advice about faith. To him, doubt is not the enemy of faith, but is central to faith. The enemy of faith, he said, is certainty. I think such belief is very relevant in the tumultuous state of world affairs nowadays. We, as young people, should be open to embracing uncertainty and be susceptible to being wrong, thus preparing us to learn and expand our minds.

CT Forum Ken Burns
Trinity College students and faculty listen to journalist Audie Cornish and documentarian Ken Burns at the Bushnell.

As we left Bushnell, I was still awe-struck by an inspiring director whose shadow will continue to be cast in the film industry as young directors and filmmakers learn from him. Not only does he do his craft well, but he also thinks carefully about it. That shows the great depth in the person that he is.

After the talk, I was motivated to learn more about documentaries, knowing from Burns that they are no less creative than scripted films. I am taking the course “Basic Filmmaking” with Prof. Bemiss right now, and it was pure luck that we were about to make our first short documentary when I got to see Burns. His methods and advice in the talk were super relevant. As I delve deeper into my film studies major, I think Burns will continue to be my guiding light in terms of documentary techniques and attitudes toward filmmaking.

Trinity College is an education partner of the Connecticut Forum, which supports open dialogue, lifelong learning, and the free and active exchange of ideas. This season of the Connecticut Forum continues on March 14, 2024, with “On Defending Democracy and a Path Forward,” featuring Liz Cheney, former U.S. Congresswoman from Wyoming, and New York Times columnist Ezra Klein.