Kartemquin Films at 45

18 mins read

If ever there was a modern-day manifestation for the expression “Mighty things from small beginnings grow,” Kartemquin Films is it. This year they celebrate their 45th anniversary with a slew of new releases, an unchallenged global reputation as a producer of socially responsible powerhouse documentaries and a renewed commitment to building their legacy.

The beginning of this anniversary year sees the Sundance release of the epic work The Interrupters, by Hoop Dreams co-director Steve James and author Alex Kotlowitz. Amongst the raves it received was an “Oscar material” declaration from Roger Ebert. But despite the continuing accolades, there is no sense of hubris when talking with either Gordon Quinn, one of Kartemquin’s co-founders and its present artistic director, or Justine Nagan, the executive director.

Like all Kartemquin documentaries, The Interrupters is a vehicle to deepen the understanding of society through the telling of everyday human drama. In this case it is an edge-of-your-seat story, told over the course of a year, of a group of activists known as “violence interrupters” working through an organization called CeaseFire in Chicago’s South Side. Gun violence and street gang deaths have skyrocketed in the area, turning parts of it into a virtual war zone. As with all Kartemquin documentaries, there are some highly dedicated, remarkable characters at the heart of the story.

To hear Gordon Quinn tell it, Kartemquin came into being almost as an afterthought to the production of the first film he did with original partners and fellow University of Chicago students Stan Karter and Jerry Temaner. They had a film club and would joke around about some day having a production company named “Kar(ter)-Tem(aner)-Quin(n)—sounds like [Battleship] Potemkin,” says Quinn—which became a reality out of necessity when they released their first film, Home For Life, in 1966.

Community-building has always been at the heart of what makes Kartemquin tick, but even that has metamorphosed over the years. Home For Life was made in the highly politicized climate of the ’60s and marks a period when Kartemquin was thought of as a social-issue production company and organization. By the early ’70s, it had evolved into a film collective of 16 members, largely spurred on by the arrival of Jenny Rohrer and Suzanne Davenport and The Chicago Maternity Center Story, which had started as their student film project at Columbia College. Only half the members were filmmakers; the rest were teachers and union organizers and a majority were women.

The early influences on Kartemquin filmmaking had been from cinema verité—Pennebaker, Leacock and Jean Rouch. But a big lightbulb moment came around this time when they began to see the limitations of straight verité: “We thought you could just hold up a mirror to society and it would change, but we began to see you really need to deal with power relationships. You need to understand things in a broader context just to understand the consequences of what is happening to people,” says Gordon Quinn.

An important distinction that lies at the heart of Kartemquin’s work on social issues comes out of Quinn’s own philosophy. He believes that as important as it is for documentarians to always focus on a particular issue and to work closely with its supporters, it is equally essential to never become part of an organization or to adopt a “party” line. Growing up the son of an ex-politico, Quinn learned early on how limiting it can be to allow dogma to dictate one’s reactions to situations.

Kartemquin’s Chicago-based offices still occupy the same late-Victorian heap they have been in since 1972, but much has changed. With a full-time staff of eight now, there is a lot of hustle and bustle. Desks and edit suites are tucked into every nook and cranny. From her office in a transformed bedroom, Justine Nagan talks about the reasons behind Kartemquin’s continuing success, the current climate for documentary and the importance of planning for the future.

In May 2010, Kartemquin gathered together for a strategic retreat to build a comprehensive three-year plan for the company. Nagan defines the core goals as “continuing to foster Kartemquin’s evolution and growth—without sacrificing any of its culture and ideals—by better understanding and building the Kartemquin audience and broadening the organization’s funding model towards long-term sustainability.”

The idea of strategic planning had received major support in 2007 thanks to a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. The grant allowed them the luxury of taking a thoughtful and consultative approach to solidifying the Kartemquin legacy, looking toward the future and defining the company without founding members like Quinn or Jerry Blumenthal who has been on board since 1967. “Kartemquin has been a model for other nonprofits in transitioning from the leadership by the founder to a new generation,” says Elspeth Revere, vice-president of Media, Culture and Special Initiatives with the Foundation.

Nagan credits Quinn with his openness to the idea of creating a smooth transition when she took over his role as executive director in 2008, but as Quinn explains: “We were trying to avoid the typical scenario of either new leadership being formed in a crisis mode or old leadership not stepping down in time.” The upside for Quinn is that he can devote his energies to his own creative output, proof of which will be seen in the 2011 release of his latest feature-doc—co-directed with Bob Hercules— A Good Man, on controversial Chicago modern-dance choreographer Bill T. Jones.

It’s interesting how defining moments in Kartemquin’s evolution can be tied to the process of making certain films. The Chicago Maternity Center Story, released in 1976, instilled the realization that straight verité was not enough, that there was a need to provide a larger context for the audience. Similarly, Hoop Dreams, from director Steve James, demarcates another important stage in Kartemquin’s evolution, although this time more from an organizational standpoint.

It was the early ’90s when James and Frederick Marx knocked at Kartemquin’s door with their idea to follow two talented basketball-playing kids from Chicago’s inner city. Peter Gilbert, already an associate of Kartemquin’s, was, like James and Marx, a huge basketball buff and a natural choice to shoot and later produce the project (along with James and Marx). The film proved to be a stunning success.

Hoop Dreams received a Peabody Award and a nomination for an Oscar for Best Film Editing, and director James was the recipient of the 1995 Director’s Guild of America award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary/Actuality. This was when, as Quinn puts it, “[we realized] we were evolving into this sense that we’re a documentary production centre where producers come with a passion for a project and we’re the place where they can hang their hat. There’s a context, there’s people to work with, there’s shared values.”

Take any of the more than 40 documentaries in Kartemquin’s output over the last 45 years and it becomes obvious that at the heart of each one there has been an intense process on two different levels, filmically and sociologically. There is an inseparable relationship between the way the film gets made and the community for whom it is being made.

There is no finer example of the marriage of the two than Steve James and Peter Gilbert’s 2008 feature documentary, At the Death House Door. The film tells the story of prison chaplain Caroll Pickett, who pre-sided over 95 executions during the 15 years he served the inmates of the infamous Huntsville, Tx., prison unit known as “Walls.” The execution of one of his charges, Carlos de Luna, converted him from a supporter of the death penalty into an activist working to abolish it. With the help of two Chicago Tribune investigative reporters, Steve Mills and Maury Possley, who had been following the de Luna story, the filmmakers set out to prove Pickett’s gut feeling that the executed man was innocent.

Two filmmakers with strong personal feelings about the death penalty, the deeply conflicted character of Pickett and unrelenting digging from the Tribune investigative reporters resulted in a film that reaches out to people who are not necessarily sympathetic to the issue of abolishing the death penalty. The end result is a powerhouse documentary that has seen almost 270,000 downloads through the Independent Film Channel.

The other essential part of creating At the Death House Door was early consultation with organizations like the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the Illinois branch of The Innocence Project. As James describes it: “We were in touch with both fairly early on, but we were not making a film designed to serve any organization’s cause per se. Once it was done, these two organizations embraced the film and used it, and the film and Pickett have had a very active post-broadcast life around the country and even abroad through screenings initiated by various institutions and activist groups.” On July 1st of this year, Illinois will become the 16th state to abolish the death penalty.

Quinn explains that Kartemquin is not just about making films but about consciously setting out to serve a larger community. Take The New Americans series, which follows a diverse group of new immigrants over four years as they begin their lives in America, or Maria Finitzo’s Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita —documentary productions that tackle hot-button issues in the U.S. zeitgeist by illustrating them with very moving, heartfelt human stories.

One area to which Kartemquin has an unshakeable commitment is their internship programme, which received over 200 applications last summer. Due to its popularity, the intern staff has been upped from four to six, with much effort going into making it a well-rounded programme to really expose interns to the full experience of getting docs out in the world. A recent offshoot of that concept was the introduction of a Diversity Fellowship, awarded to Usama Alshaibi in 2009.

Alshaibi was well known in the more underground experimental-film world, but then broke through in 2007 following screenings on the Sundance Channel of his video diary Nice Bombs, which he had made on his first return trip to Baghdad following the American invasion. The feature he is directing and producing with Kartemquin, American Arab, came out of his observations following his return to the U.S. from Iraq. He has noticed a huge rise in hate crimes against American Arabs since 9/11.

Alshaibi says that there is great respect in the documentary community for Kartemquin: “There’s something that’s incredible about the consistency of their commitment to the integrity of the truth. And there’s an honesty to their filmmaking process—to be part of that is a great honour.” Alshaibi says that Quinn will often sit with him to provide feedback on his footage, as will their senior staff editor, Leslie Simmer.

So aside from the incredibly supportive environment, is there something special about how a Kartemquin film gets made? For one thing, there is usually a very extensive edit period accompanied by large feedback screenings involving everyone from the company’s community. Nagan admits that while these may be difficult for the filmmaker, they ultimately make the film much stronger. They’re also committed to showing the film to the doc’s main subjects first, out of respect for them and to ensure that they’ve really captured their story.

What has undoubtedly contributed to Kartemquin’s high profile in the documentary world is their commitment to giving back to that community. Quinn, for one, has been in the forefront of issues around public media, Net neutrality and copyright and was particularly instrumental in helping establish and keep ITVS, a primary funding, distribution and promotion body for independent filmmaking for U.S. public television. According to its vice-president of programming, Claire Aguilar, “ITVS has relied on Kartemquin as an advisor for the field of independent producers and public media, especially in Chicago, where they are the leading media arts centre.”

As Nagan tells it, when she first joined the staff in 2005, out of the huge body of work done over the years, only three were available on DVD. Since Nagan’s assumption of the role of executive director there have been many meaningful and pragmatic changes. Quinn says that up until then, Kartemquin had been strategic about their films but not about the organization.

Even in these trying economic times amid massive changes in media distribution, Nagan has a clear vision of what will not be compromised: the quality of the work, the ethical standards and Kartemquin’s commitment to emerging filmmakers. She says they’ll be working with their filmmakers to explore creative methods of fundraising while working toward expanding the institution’s financial strategies as a not-for-profit organization.

If there is a secret formula for what makes Kartemquin such a success story, it might lie in its ability to constantly re-invent itself. As Quinn says, “We don’t keep making the same film on the same subjects—we’re constantly responding to what we feel is going on in the world.” But perhaps more importantly, Kartemquin is the sum of its parts. As Claire Aguilar puts it: “Kartemquin has wonderfully talented people with great personalities and creativity—and they are all heart—from Gordon Quinn, one of the founders of Kartemquin, right through to the new executive director Justine Nagan, a talented visionary leader full of energy for the next generation.”

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