Burns vow to resist “Central Park Five” subpoena

Directors Ken and Sarah Burns are vowing to fight a subpoena from the City of New York, which is calling on them to turn over footage and material from their Cannes and TIFF doc The Central Park Five (pictured).
October 5, 2012

Directors Ken and Sarah Burns are vowing to fight a subpoena from the City of New York, which is calling on them to turn over footage and material from their Cannes and TIFF doc The Central Park Five (pictured).

The ‘Central Park Five’ of the film’s title were five young men convicted of a brutal rape in 1989. After serving out terms of their convictions, a man whose DNA matched evidence in the case confessed to the crime and said he acted alone, and the five had their convictions vacated.

The subjects of the film – which was co-directed by Ken and daughter Sarah with David McMahon – are suing the City of New York for US$50 million for their wrongful convictions.

As part of the case, lawyers for the City of New York earlier this week filed a subpoena demanding Ken Burns and his production company, Florentine Films, turn over all unpublished interviews and unreleased footage not used in the documentary, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and played at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

“The plaintiffs’ interviews go to the heart of the case and cannot be obtained elsewhere,” said Celeste Koeleveld, a NYC attorney, in a statement.

However, the filmmakers and Florentine Films are vowing to resist the subpoena. In a statement, the directors said: “As you can imagine, we strongly believe in the media’s right to investigate and report on these and other issues and that this process, including the reporting notes and outtakes, come under the New York reporters’ shield law. The government has an exacting burden before it can obtain these and other materials.”

The statement adds that John Siegal, an attorney retained by Florentine Films, sent a letter to the City’s Law Department, stating that the subpoena was “overbroad,” since it seeks all materials the filmmakers collected in the course of researching, shooting and editing the film.

“The subpoena served by your office is neither appropriate nor enforceable under the governing law for subpoenas served on professional journalists exercising their right of independent free speech and comment on a matter of public importance,” the statement cites Mr. Siegal as having written. “Florentine Films has carefully considered the subpoena and is sensitive to the important work performed by your office and the issues involved in the case.

“But, due to a deeply held belief that its future ability to make films about matters of public interest would be compromised by complying with the subpoena, Florentine Films respectfully intends to invoke its constitutional and statutory rights and withhold the unpublished materials sought by your office.”

In a report from CNN, Ken Burns maintained that his team had “practically begged to talk to prosecutors and police” during the making of the film. In that same piece, Koeleveld is quoted as saying that the movie “has crossed from documentary to pure advocacy. Under such circumstances, no reasonable person could have expected us to participate in their project.”

The directors added that they had no financial relationship with those interviewed in the film, nor with any of their representatives.

Sundance Selects has theatrical rights for The Central Park Five, and PBS will air the film on U.S. TV following its theatrical run.


About The Author
Selina Chignall joins the realscreen team as a staff writer. Prior to working with rs, she covered lobbying activity at Hill Times Publishing. She also spent a year covering the Hill as a journalist with iPolitics. Her beat focused on youth, education, democratic reform, innovation and infrastructure. She holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from Western University and a Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto.