“The Dust Bowl” Preview Night

November 15, 2012 § 5 Comments

November 2, 2012

“Two midnights in a jug.” –Dust Bowl Survivor’s description of Black Sunday.

New Mexico PBS hosted a preview night of Ken Burns’ upcoming documentary The Dust Bowl at the African American Performing Arts Center on November 2, 2012. After the screening, Gene Grant of New Mexico In Focus moderated a Q&A with co-producer Julie Dunfey and two Dust Bowl survivors, Sam Arguello and Robert “Boots” McCoy. Both men told their boyhood accounts of the horrific dust storm on April 14, 1935, now referred to as Black Sunday.

After the session, moderator Gene Grant said to me and my friend Dia, “I’m still shaking from those Black Sunday stories.”

I woke up the next morning with vivid images of fire and dust in my head. What is it about oral storytelling that is so powerful? It’s primordial, like sitting around the campfire recalling the day’s adventures of peril.

Moderator Gene Grant and Me at The Dust Bowl preview night.

“It was the end of the world.” Sam Arguello, a native New Mexican, said he was outside the house in the front yard when he saw the black dust cloud coming in from the east. He called to his friends who were inside the house. By the time they came to the doorway, he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. The dust storm lasted three hours, and when it moved to the west, it looked like a wall of red fire.

Robert McCoy and his sister were leaving church when the storm came. They couldn’t see the steps they stood on. McCoy’s sister, whom he called his “best buddy,” ended up dying from dust pneumonia. McCoy said he had to be dragged to her funeral because he couldn’t accept that she was dead.

Dia and Gene at The Dust Bowl preview night.

“It’s a parable about our relationship to the land that sustains us.” —Julie Dunfey, Co-Producer, The Dust Bowl

After the Q&A,  Dia and I ambushed approached co-producer Julie Dunfey as she came down off the stage. Dia, co-owner of Cheza Jouer Films, asked Julie how their team found funding for their project. Julie said it is much harder to get funding since the ’08 recession, and that it seems Ken Burns spends more time fundraising than filmmaking. If you are passionate about your project and approach people with that passion, though, the funding will come through.

Me and Dia with The Dust Bowl co-producer Julie Dunfey (middle).

I asked Julie what she thinks the common thread is between Ken Burns’ projects, since his films range so widely in subject matter. She replied, “He always looks for what it means to be an American.”

Will you be watching? Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl premieres on PBS November 18 and 19, 2012, 8:00–10:00 p.m. ET. Check your local PBS station schedule.

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