KEENE, N.H. -- The Monadnock International Film Festival, a non-profit organization, awarded the first Jonathan Daniels Award to Ken Burns on Saturday, April 6.
Jonathan Daniels, a 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian from Keene, is a celebrated civil rights martyr. In 1965 he answered Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to join in the civil rights struggle in Alabama. Only months later Daniels was killed in Hayneville, Ala., when he stepped in front of a vigilante attempting to kill 17-year-old Ruby Sales, a fellow activist and African American woman.
The Jonathan Daniels Award is given to a socially conscious filmmaker of great artistic merit that echoes Daniels’ courage, purpose and spirit by using film in a powerful and transformative way.
The award ceremony started with an introduction to Daniels. Jonathan Perry spoke on the behalf of Keene’s Martin Luther King/Jonathan Daniels committee.
"Ever since I first heard of the award, it’s naming has become more and more appropriate in my life. John’s life was not just about being a martyr. Like these talented filmmakers who have shared their work over the past few days, Jonathan’s life was about finding a passion and following it. Once Jon found his true calling was helping others he followed it religiously in every true sense of that word. He knew the power of story telling and sought to be a voice for the voiceless through his actions. On behalf of the Martin Luther King and Jonathan Daniels Committee and on behalf of my family I would like to thank the Monadnock International Film Festival for choosing to honor Jon’s memory and legacy with this prestigious award."
The Martin Luther King/Jonathan Daniels Committee is a city committee that exists to celebrate and honor the significance of the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jonathan Daniels and promote the principles of social justice, non violence, equality, multiculturalism through educational programs, public events, community service.
The award was presented by Van McLeod, the Commissioner for the State of New Hampshire’s Department of Cultural Resources.
"The body of the work that Ken Burns has done has helped change America, how we think about ourselves, how we look at who we are, its extraordinarily important," said McLeod.
Ken Burns has been making films that inspired the nation for over 25 years. His documentaries include topics such as baseball, the dust bowl, jazz, and Thomas Jefferson and the Civil War. His production company Florentine Films is located in Walpole. Burns was met with a standing ovation and said a few words before the question and answer portion for his documentary.
"Jonathan Daniels has been a huge figure in my life, his sacrifice, his work," said Burns. "Something like this event, the connection with his extraordinary life and this award gives us the opportunity to light a candle in the darkness and to say we are not going to give up, we’re going to do something. I’m really thrilled and honored to be here and I’m very humbled by an association with this award and Jonathan Daniels."
The film that brought Burns to the Festival was "The Central Park Five." This documentary is about the 1989 New York jogger case and more specifically the five African American and Latino boys who were wrongly convicted of rape: Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kharey Wise, and Kevin Richardson.
On the night of April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white women was attacked and raped. When she was found, the attention immediately went to a group of kids who had also been in Central Park that night. Five boys were specifically targeted and interrogated for hours until they gave false statements, which led to their convictions. The younger boys, ages 14 to 15, served six to seven years, the older boy, 16, served 13 years. The real culprit came forward 13 years after their conviction and they were exonerated.
During these events Ken Burns was in New York editing "The Civil War."
"Like everyone else I was stunned and shocked, believed what the newspapers were saying that these kids had confessed and that they must have done it."
Burns’ daughter Sarah was the actual inspiration behind this film. Sarah was an undergraduate at Yale when she met Raymond and Kevin through an internship at a law firm and wrote her senior thesis on the representation of race in this case which takes place in a progressive late-20th-century city, but the language is of a Jim Crow city at the beginning of the 20th century. Naturally she was outraged by what happened to these children and the lack of attention on their exoneration and decided to write a book.
"Sarah’s husband, film maker David McMahon, and I have been collaborators for the last 15 years and when she started writing the book we had the great privilege of looking over her shoulders and going ‘Wow. This is not just a book, it’s a film,’" said Burns
Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam were present and spoke at the showing of "The Central Park Five" at the Colonial Theater during the film festival.
"We felt like the whole world was against us, we felt like this was long nightmare that was never going to end," said Santana. "To finally see our story be told, to finally have the truth be told, what we were always seeking, we always thought that somehow someway it would be found. But it took so many years for it to happen; but we’re humbled we’re honored. It’s also a sign of relief; it’s a part of our healing process. Now we get to go around the country and speak and interact with so many people and the response we’re receiving is awesome. Now we know the world isn’t against us"
A civil suit for this case was launched in 2003 and most cases like this one are settled almost immediately out of court. Those that go to trial go to trial within the year. The case is now coming up on the 10-year mark.
"It’s a sign of the intransigence of a city that ought to do better than that," said Burns. "The 13 years they spent in hell is justice denied, but the last 10 years has been justice delayed, which we know from our poetry and our literature is also justice denied."
The Monadnock International Film Festival is a non-profit organization, started in June 2011, with a mission to bring world-class film and filmmakers to New England’s Monadnock Region. The festival partnered with Arts Alive!, The Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce, W.H.A.T.’S. Keene, and over 50 area businesses. The festival took place from April 4-7 and boasted five feature films, two documentaries, a short film program, documentary panel and television panel. The Monadnock International Film Festival will take place annually in Keene.