* THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE. 9 p.m. Tuesday, WHYY 12.

SARAH BURNS didn't set out to become the Sofia Coppola of documentary filmmakers.

Or to become a filmmaker at all.

"I think I'd actually, in some ways, stayed away from it, because it was there," said Burns, whose first documentary, "The Central Park Five" - written, directed and produced with her father, Ken Burns ("The Civil War," "Baseball"), and her husband, David McMahon - makes its TV premiere Tuesday on PBS.

"My mom [Ken Burns' first wife, Amy Stechler] made a documentary film also," she said. "My parents worked together when I was very young and before I was born . . . and my uncle [Ric Burns], of course, is a documentary filmmaker, as well. So, there is something of a sort of family thing there."

And that was even before she married McMahon, who's worked with her father for 14 years and with whom she has a 2-year-old daughter. "I was always interested in film and I always came to screenings and sort of hung around and was curious about it," she said. But she once thought of becoming a lawyer, and at Yale she decided to major in American studies, not film.

"Of course, I didn't realize at the time I was switching from the medium to the content of my dad's films," she said, laughing, in an interview in Pasadena, Calif., in January. "I don't think that quite resonated yet."

It was her husband who suggested that she expand her college essay about media coverage of the 1989 Central Park jogger case into the book, published last year as The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York's Most Infamous Crimes.

"It wasn't because I wanted to write a book," she said. "It was because I wanted to tell the story" of five teens convicted and imprisoned for a crime they didn't commit. "And in some ways, the film is the same thing. It was just the obvious next thing to do in telling this story."

The story in "The Central Park Five" isn't new. And yet it remains controversial enough that "it scared away some of our traditional funders," Ken Burns told reporters in January.

Exonerated more than 10 years ago in the 1989 rape and near-fatal beating of investment banker Trisha Meili, who was left with no memory of the attack, the five men, whose 2003 suit against the city remains unsettled, continue to be linked to the crime in the public's mind, he said.

After a judge - with the assent of Manhattan's district attorney - vacated their sentences, "people just kept writing as if they'd done it, and if you poll people, everyone who's of a certain age remembers the Central Park jogger case, across the country and in some cases the world," Ken Burns said. "Maybe 10 percent know that their convictions were vacated. But most of those believe it's on a technicality."

Few, he said, know "what actually happened," which is the story "The Central Park Five" sets out to tell, from the conflicting, apparently coerced confessions to timelines that didn't fit to the DNA that ultimately linked another man to the crime.

Just don't expect Peter Coyote to read it to you: Unlike most Ken Burns films, this one doesn't employ a narrator.

"I think we always felt this story was different in some ways," Sarah Burns said. "Though as my dad always says, 'The themes are exactly the same.' "

Knowing that "we were going to be interviewing our main characters," they hoped to let the men themselves tell the story.

When "we interviewed Raymond [Santana, one of the five], we walked out of that interview and said, 'Well, we have a film now.' " she said.

She shared interviewing duties on the film with both McMahon and her father, and said that part of what she learned writing the book was that "I have to actually go and talk to these people. I can't just sit back in the library and look at stuff and read."

For the film, "I did the photo research and Dave did the footage research," for instance, but they all shared major decisions.

"Ultimately, the place where the film is sort of made, I mean the place where we really wrestle with the story, is in the editing room," she said.

And somewhere along the line, Burns caught the family bug. She, McMahon and her father next plan to collaborate on a film about Jackie Robinson, a project that her father's hoped to do for years (she described the timing of the current "42" as "coincidence"). "We've already done two interviews with Rachel [Robinson's widow], though we haven't officially started production."

Ken Burns seems comfortable mixing work and family. "I've worked with the same cinematographer for 40 years," he said. "I've worked with the same editor for 30 years. One of my writers, for 30 years, one of them for over 20 years. . . . An intern who came in his year before college has now been working for me for 20 years as an editor, is married, has three kids and a mortgage. We've developed a kind of family already."

Still: "I cannot tell you what an extraordinary gift it is to be able to work that hard, put no pressure on your children to go into the business you are in and find out that she was willing to do that and to do it so spectacularly. This project is born of her outrage and anger at this story."

DAILY NEWS MEMBERS ONLY: Watch a video clip from "The Central Park Five."

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