Review: ‘Inquiring Nuns’ / ‘Chicago Maternity Centre Story’

Hot Docs 2016

3 mins read

Inquiring Nuns
(USA, 66 min; 1968)
Dir. Gordon Quinn, Gerald Temaner


screens with:

The Chicago Maternity Center Story
(USA, 60 min; 1976)
Dir. Jerry Blumenthal, Suzanne Davenport, Sharon Karp, Gordon Quinn and Jenny Rohrer
Programme: Redux

The acclaimed Chicago-based documentary organisation Kartemquin is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and as part of the worldwide activities honouring the revered company, Hot Docs has programmed a dual programme of two classics, Chicago Maternity Center Story (1976) and Inquiring Nuns (1968).

Directly influenced by the 1961 French documentary, Chronicle of a Summer, which starts with two girls wandering the streets of Paris asking passerby, “Are you happy?,” directors Gordon Quinn and Gerald Temaner enlisted two young Chicago nuns, Sisters Arne and Campion, to walk through Chicago one Sunday in 1967 and ask citizens this same question. They cross paths with a wide swath of citizenry, from attendees at Chicago’s Art Institute to parishioners at a South Side church to spectators at the Museum of Science and Industry. With a hypnotic organ soundtrack by a then-little-known Phillip Glass, the film is fascinating to watch because of its immediacy of emotion. It’s no surprise that citizens’ vulnerable sides are brought out when talking to two nuns. “People really are interesting,” say the Sisters when they are interviewed at the close of the film. “If they sense that you are really interested in them, they will say something of value.”

Chicago Maternity Center is a poignant look into the realm of midwifery and its place in what was then a changing American medical system. It tracks the history and then-current state of the Maternity Center, which was initially funded and finally shut down by Northwestern University in 1974, after operating for 78 years. The film draws important attention to advocates of the home delivery tradition, who claim the “medical profession outlawed midwives, destroyed community health care and replaced it with nothing.”

The filmmakers intercut footage from a 1940 Pare Lorentz film based on the Chicago Maternity Center, called Fight for Life, which helped audiences to learn more about the mortality of motherhood and to find new ways to prevent it. There is a stunningly intimate scene of a mother giving birth to her son, Dwayne Pierre, one of the last babies to be born at the Maternity Center. Through fusing of past, present, and future, the Kartemquin collective filmmaking effort gives us a lasting document that remains as poignant and provocative as ever.


Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit for more information.

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