Ken Burns visits Jacksonville for screening of his latest documentary on Mayo Clinic

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Ken Burns has devoted his 40-year career to telling some of America’s most important stories, and he said he can’t think of anything his team has created that is more quintessentially American than the story of the Mayo Clinic. 

The documentary filmmaker, accompanied by his co-directors Erik and Chris Ewers, visited the First Coast last week for a screening of that very film, “The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science,” which is scheduled to air on PBS Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Held at the University of North Florida’s Lazzara Performance Hall last Thursday, Sept. 13, the screening showed six clips totaling 48 minutes of the two-hour documentary. 

“It’s really important to say this is one of the films that we’ve made as close to our heart as any other project,” said Burns, whose work also includes “The Civil War, “Baseball” and “The Vietnam War,” among others. “It’s been, in every sense, a labor of love.”

Featuring the voices of Tom Hanks, Sam Waterston, Blythe Danner and Josh Lucas and interviews with John McCain and the Dalai Lama, the film explores the Mayo Clinic’s 150-year history, starting with the story of William Worrall Mayo, an English immigrant who began practicing medicine with his sons Will and Charlie in Rochester, Minnesota. 

Together with the Sisters of Saint Francis, the documentary shows how they lay the foundation for a medical center that now treats over 1 million patients every year from 50 states and 150 countries, and employs 64,000 people in Rochester and at campuses in Jacksonville and Scottsdale, Arizona.

Throughout “The Mayo Clinic,” Burns and the Ewers brothers weave in stories of patients who come to the Clinic for answers, and hope. Combined with the historical narrative, these testimonies demonstrate the almost mythical nature of the institution. 

“They are the best hospital on earth, because they have these extraordinary values behind them” Burns said. “They have the history that is so improbable involving (the) Sisters of Saint Francis in Rochester, Minnesota. They’ve done everything right and been able to keep those values and been free all of the attendant stuff that has beset the others.”

Erik Ewers said the inspiration for the documentary came from Burns, who one day ran into their editing room after a dinner with Mayo Clinic representatives and expressed his excitement.

“Oh, my god,” Erik recounted Burns exclaiming. “This is going to be an amazing film. It’s got religion in it, and it’s about faith. It’s about hope.”

Erik said Burns then ran back out of the studio, and just like that, the team had two-thirds of the title for the film. 

“The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science” has been in production for three years. Burns and company traveled to Rochester, Jacksonville and Scottsdale to meet with surgeons, physicians, nurses, employees and patients, and to document operations ranging from brain surgery to open heart surgery and everything in between.  

“Fascinating doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Chris Ewers said. “None of us had ever been in the operating theater in that manner. … We expected it to be a very high-stress, very dramatic environment. In fact, from day one, what we realized is it’s a beautifully choregraphed ballet where everything is serene.” 

The Mayo Clinic provided the filmmaking team with full access to its archives and people, acknowledging that they wouldn’t have any editorial control over the project. 

“They knew going in, because of public broadcasting, that there was no way that they could influence the content and yet they were looking to open up everything to us, unafraid of what we might find,” Burns said. “The thing that we learned most of all about the Mayo Clinic is this incredible culture of collaboration that comes from a deeply held, humanistic place. These are people on the front line of compassion and care, not only in the medical field, but in our own lives.”

Burns also acknowledged that the documentary raises questions about today’s current healthcare system in the United States.

“We’re not going into the healthcare debate,” Burns said. “But obviously, if you see someone who does it the best in the world, it makes you think, what are we doing? Why has this debate been hijacked by the politicians? Why aren’t we saying, ‘We like that, why can’t we do more of that?’ It’s literally that simple.”

In addition to the initial broadcast on Sept. 25, the documentary will be aired for a repeat broadcast the following day on Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (check local listings). 

Although viewers may initially see “The Mayo Clinic” as a departure from Burns’ other work, the acclaimed filmmaker said the documentary weaves into the same fabric of his long list of stories. 

“In some ways, we’ve made the same film over and over again,” Burns said. “It’s asking a question about who are we. ‘The Mayo Clinic’ answers it in one way. ‘The Vietnam War’ answers it in another. ‘The Roosevelts,’ the ‘Brooklyn Bridge,’ the ‘Statue of Liberty,’ ‘Civil War,’ they all answer it in a different kind of way. But maybe not even answer it but deepen the question. It’s a pursuit of who we are.”

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