Aaron Burr was a major figure in the American revolution and early republic. But the legacy of our third vice president was ruined forever on July 11, 1804 when he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. In Aaron Burr, Part 2 (T/F 2012) Burr himself returns to finally clear the air about that fateful day and the events leading up to it. Check out the short below, as well as my chat with the filmmaker Dana O’Keefe, the man also responsible for Vladimir Putin in Deep Concentration (T/F 2013).
T/F: How did you first become interested in making a film about Aaron Burr?
DO: I was initially fascinated by the idea that political figures resolved their differences through this highly ritualized form of combat. And then when it became clear that there were discrepancies in the accounts of the duel, that presented an opportunity to explore the idea that there isn’t really a stable version of history. That it depends on your perspective.
If there was a moment of clarity in conceiving the project, it was when we went to the actual site where the duel took place and realized that it was a parking lot. History, especially in New York, is all around us. It’s sort of hiding in plain sight. Using the actual locations where these things happened and embracing the fact that they looked modern forces the spectator to think about the relationship between past and present.
One thing I soon realized is that I knew absolutely nothing about what really happened during the revolutionary war. In this short period a time a relatively small group of people made a series of decisions which in turn determined what would happen over the next two hundred years.
T/F: What’s True/False about your film?
DO: I think the entire premise is “is there empirical, objective historical truth?” Aaron Burr was arguably as important a political figure as Alexander Hamilton. But he wrote himself out of history by killing another man, who in turn was enshrined as a national treasure.
To me it’s the epitome of how I interpret True/False, playing with these questions of documentary versus narrative. We tried to use a narrative filmmaking grammar to approach a documentary subject.
T/F: Could you tell me a little more about this narrative grammar?
DO: I think the idea was to figure out a way to present historical subject matter in a way that was both dynamic and relevant to a younger audience. The style is very music driven and utilizes highly composed shots, things that you don’t usually see in documentary. It’s very easy in shooting this sort of material to backslide into something that looks stagey or artificial.
T/F: Yeah, it almost feels like a film trailer in some ways . . .
DO: Yeah, that’s funny, I guess it is somehow, it’s sort of like shorthand. I’ve never really worked extensively with dialogue in films, so a lot of what I do involves music and silent film storytelling techniques, occasionally title cards and things like that. So I try to convey as much as I can visually.
T/F: I thought Burr as a character was quite interesting. You made him arrogant and somewhat unlikeable, even though this is his chance to tell his story. How did you think about Burr as a character and a narrator?
DO: Gore Vidal wrote a historical novel called Burr which quickly eclipsed all of the other source material. The film is heavily indebted to that work in terms of presenting the jaundiced perspective of this guy who sort of wrote himself out of history and therefore has a very critical attitude about the cherished mythology of the period. That book really helped clarify how to portray his psychology.
T/F: Burr’s voice in the film has a weird, sort of otherworldly quality to it.
DO: Here’s a one way of thinking about it. We’re presented with this one version of history which we rarely question, right? And then Burr’s point of view about this incident is completely different, and he presents this version which contradicts the received wisdom. And he does so in a way that at first seems very objective and detached, almost robotic. But I think as the film builds you realize that his point of view is also delusional. Elements of megalomania sort of creep into this impartial narration. Hopefully, it highlights the impossibility of any stable interpretation of a historical event.