The Joplin Globe: Joplin student earns chance to meet Ken Burns through History Day contest

In his second year participating in National History Day, Josef Schuller has earned a special honor — the privilege of being able to meet famed filmmaker Ken Burns.

“It’s really exciting,” said Schuller from his Joplin home last week. “Wow, we actually get to meet Ken Burns. What they call ‘the Ken Burns effect,’ I used some of that in my own documentary.”

Schuller, a student at South Middle School who was a third-place winner last month at National History Day, is among the first six winners nationwide of the Next Generation Angels Awards, a new honor that recognizes middle school and high school students for excellence in historical filmmaking.

The awards were launched earlier this year as the youth component of the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, a new initiative to support professional filmmakers exploring themes in American history. They are made possible through the support of the Better Angels Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education Americans about their history through documentary film.

“These burgeoning documentary filmmakers have addressed compelling lessons of history,” said Cathy Gorn, executive director of National History Day, in a statement. “We are grateful to Ken Burns and the Better Angels Society for celebrating our students’ success and working to encourage them to cultivate their skills as future filmmakers.”

Meeting Ken Burns

Schuller’s documentary is titled “The Bridge Over Funchilin Pass: The Only Option for Retreat.” Detailing the dramatic and daring trek by U.S. Marines from North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, the film won him first place in the region in the category of junior individual documentary, second place at the state competition and third place at the national contest.

“At nationals, I was just happy to get in the top 10,” he said. “We saw some of the other documentaries, and they were really good.”

Schuller and the other five awardees — from California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Singapore — will travel to Washington, D.C., for a three-day excursion this fall, courtesy of Hilton Hotels. They will receive tours, special screenings and behind-the-scenes access to film archives at the Library of Congress, American Film Institute and other cultural agencies.

They also will be recognized at a special ceremony and dinner by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who has won 16 Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Burns’ documentaries include “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The Statue of Liberty” and “The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science.”

“We are so proud to partner with these young historians, writers, scholars and thinkers,” Burns said in a statement. “I’ve long admired National History Day and have enjoyed attending these national events. It is a tremendous honor to now have a small part in recognizing the extraordinary work this organization does and to acknowledge how young people throughout the country are bringing a new understanding and depth to our historical consciousness.”

Learning ‘cool facts’

Schuller chose this year’s History Day topic after talking with his grandfather, Warren Turner, commander of Joplin’s American Legion Post 13. The theme of the 2019 competition was “Tragedy and Triumph in History.”

Turner had suggested his grandson look into the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, an important conflict in the Korean War that took place during the last months of 1950. Schuller researched the topic and decided to narrow it specifically to the U.S. military force’s retreat through the Funchilin Pass, a daring mission that required portable bridge sections to be dropped into the area by parachute.

He drew the background information from books and websites and scoured firsthand-account letters and images to use as primary sources. He chose to create a documentary because he was familiar with the technology and program needed for filmmaking.

Schuller said his favorite part of History Day, for which he begins preparing every August, is learning “cool facts” about his chosen topics. This year, for example, he was particularly interested to learn that the troops had only 1 inch of clearance on either side of their makeshift bridge as they crossed through the Funchilin Pass, and that the aircraft that dropped the bridge parts in the area were so new that their safety features hadn’t been added to the manual yet.

The National History Day competition draws more than 600,000 participating students worldwide in at least the school level, said Heather Van Otterloo, Schuller’s teacher and History Day adviser at South Middle School. Schuller placed third at the national level out of 103 documentaries in his category, she said.