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The Dirty 30s
By Annie Tisdale
Can you imagine the dunes of the Sahara Desert in the middle of the Great Plains of the American heartland? If you can, you might have an idea of what it may have looked like in the Dust Bowl, an area of grasslands turned into farmland in the southern plains of the United States. The region became almost uninhabitable in the 1930’s due to one of the largest man-made ecological disasters in history.
The documentary The Dust Bowl by Ken Burns explores the events of the decade-long dry spell during the Great Depression through engaging interviews with historians and twenty-six survivors that experienced it first hand. After the prosperity of the roaring 20’s the nation suffered a terrible drought and those farmers who formerly experienced a boon in wheat sales were now unable to make a living, abandoning their vast fields and leaving them untended. The overgrazing and over-plowing of nearly 5.2 million acres of land left the topsoil exposed to winds. Tons of dirt was displaced in “black blizzards,” coating everything thing in dust, sometimes reaching as far as the East Coast.
The film embodies everything you might expect from a Ken Burns documentary, from the abundant use of intriguing archival photographs to the folksy music that sends the audience back to another time and place. The photos of an approaching black cloud of dust descending on a small Midwest town or the video of a sea of sand rippling like waves under persistent winds are just a few of the visual aids, along with the tunes of Woody Guthrie, that makes The Dust Bowl so fascinating.
I found the stories from the survivors who grew up as children during this time the most captivating, such as the static electricity that filled the air right before a dust storm that would fry car radios or the poverty and hardship they endured with stubborn pride. According to survivor Virginia Frantz, “Mother could get us a dress out of three feed sacks. They made ‘em real pretty, pretty prints because they found out the farmers' wives were using them for that.” The film is a gripping recount of the farmers’ resilience, even in the face of discrimination as some migrated to California and were met with suspicion and resentment. Author John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is about the journey of such “Okies”, as they were sometimes called.
The documentary is only about two hours, but at times it does feel as though it’s longer. At times it also seems repetitive, which may be on account of the film being broken into two parts with the second installment covering the same background info as the first. And although the film is mainly a human story about the people of the plains during the Great Depression, I would have liked to see Burns go into more detail about the uncertain future of the Ogallala aquifer that is now being used to sustain the farmlands. Overall, The Dust Bowl struck the right tone and serves as a compelling moral tale and warning for coming generations about environmental conservation.
The Dust Bowl by Ken Burns is airing PBS.