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Documentary Buddha: Gordon Quinn on the Legacy of Kartemquin Films

Kartemquin and Gordon Quinn are national treasures. The work they have been doing on behalf of this nation for fifty years helps make it great. These are not just films. They are capsules of humanity that touch hearts and change minds. Matt Fagerholm's interview with Gordon Quinn illustrates why he is still going strong. Join us in celebrating them on June 24th in Chicago. Click here for tickets.—Chaz Ebert

WHEN I SAW Joanna Rudnick's documentary short, "On Beauty," at the Midwest Independent Film Festival last year, I hailed it as "a masterful example of how cinema can serve as a humanizing force in the world." The same could be said of every single film made by Kartemquin Films over its extraordinary half-century-long legacy. This Chicago-based, non-profit production company has made such vital documentaries as Steve James' Oscar-nominated "Hoop Dreams" (1994), David E. Simpson's riveting look at the complexities of conservation, "Milking the Rhino" (2008), Bill Siegel's definitive portrait of the titular boxing legend, "The Trials of Muhammad Ali" (2013), and last year's essential six-part series on our nation's underpaid citizens, "Hard Earned," which was broadcast on Al Jazzera America. A vital creative force behind all of these projects is Kartemquin's co-founder and Artistic Director, Gordon Quinn, recipient of the International Documentary Association's 2015 Career Achievement Award, as well as CIMMfest’s 2016 BAADASSSSS Award.

A week prior to Kartemquin's 50th Anniversary Gala scheduled for Friday, June 24th, Quinn spoke with about his company's evolving identity, its triumphant battle over fair use rights and the ways in which cinema can create social change.

Reflecting on Kartemquin’s legacy, it appears that the Vietnam War played a crucial role in forging the company’s signature fusion of art and activism.

You’re definitely on the right track. The three founders—Gerald Temaner, Stan Karter and myself—all came out of the University of Chicago. We were very excited by the early vérité films that we had seen. When I saw Richard Leacock and Joyce Chopra’s “Happy Mother’s Day,” I realized that was the kind of film I wanted to make. There was no film production at the University of Chicago back then, and we had a fairly intellectual take on things. We thought that we could begin making films in conjunction with the university, and that never really worked out. Our idea of holding a mirror up to society was detailed in our paper, “Cinematic Social Inquiry.” When you show a film, everything that was in the image you recorded is still there, and people will see things in them that you never saw. We purposely made our first film, “Home For Life,” in a very well-run home for the aged, because we felt that if you look at a good institution, you will see what the larger social problems are, rather than merely looking at the specific scandals at the location. The film was very successful, but it was used primarily within the nursing home industry to illustrate how to make the institutions better.

As you said, it was the 60s, and there was a lot of social activism at the time. We had been involved in the civil-rights movement, and that’s where we initially got politicized. I’m working on a project now that my colleagues and I had filmed back when we were students, “’63 Boycott,” before Kartemquin was created. When we realized things weren’t going to happen with the university, we moved to a building in Lincoln Park that a whole bunch of us had bought together, and people started coming around. Jenny Rohrer and Sue Davenport had started a film at Columbia College and they were from the Women’s Liberation Union and the Women’s Health Movement. They were making a film about the struggle to save the Chicago Maternity Center, which was in danger of being closed down, so they brought that to me. By then, Jerry Blumenthal, who is also one of the founders, had joined us, as did Richard Schmiechen, who went on to produce “The Times of Harvey Milk.” So we had a mixture of people. Some had been doing union organizing or were teachers. Many of them were connected with various movements, particularly the women’s movement. We also had people like Richard who came with an actual film background, and we sort of morphed into the collective. 

The early films such as “Inquiring Nuns,” “Marco,” and even “Thumbs Down” were made with a purist vérité approach and had a fairly intellectual and academic frame. We were trying to make social change, and very early on, we began to realize that if you’re not looking at power relationships, you’re not really understanding what’s happening in the people’s lives that you are portraying. The power may be outside of the frame of what you’re filming. That led to pictures like “The Chicago Maternity Center Story” and the labor films we did, particularly “The Last Pullman Car,” where you’ll see they have narration and a driving analytical power to them. We wanted those films to be useful to people. If you’re going to fight one of these battles to save an institution that is serving people’s needs, you have to understand the forces that you are up against. In the case of the Maternity Center film, you have to understand the medical industrial complex that is pulling the strings in making the decisions.

Beyond all the facts and statistics, what resonates above all in a Kartemquin Film is the intimate connection viewers make with the characters.

After the collective period dissipated at the end of the ’70s, we continued to make films about union struggles, but we were also trying to make a living. We were making nuts and bolts films for unions, as well as corporate videos in order to keep afloat, yet we had always been a place where people would come with a project and a real passion for what they were doing. One day, these two tall guys [Steve James and Frederick Marx] came into Kartemquin with the idea for a film called “Hoop Dreams,” and very quickly they linked up with Peter Gilbert, who was already associated with Kartemquin and a total basketball nut. In many ways, the film took us back to our roots. A lot of people saw “Hoop Dreams” who would never watch a film about a social problem or an inner-city family. But it was about sports and about coming of age. That film inspired us to return to making vérité films. 

One of the best things that we ever did was “The New Americans,” a terrific seven-hour series. Steve James, Peter Gilbert and I knew that immigration was heating up as an issue. Everyone was arguing about immigrants, but we wanted to actually tell their stories. It was important for us to show people in their home country before they came to America, and to not just show them sitting there with their bags packed. In the Palestinian story, the woman that we followed was finishing college in east Jerusalem and was engaged to a guy in Chicago. By starting her story in Jerusalem, you would really get a sense of what she was leaving behind. At the same time, American viewers would be drawn into a world where they'd have to figure out the culture, and then when the immigrants come into the U.S., they'd be much more empathetic with their position as an outsider. 

At Kartemquin, we don’t have the money to fund anything, but we’re a collegial place for people to work in a creative atmosphere and receive help in developing their projects. We also help with fundraising and can give filmmakers advice and sometimes introduce them to potential funders. We’re always looking for people that want to collaborate with us. A film like “The Homestretch,” which deals with homeless youth in Chicago, is a perfect example of that. It was a real collaboration with the filmmakers.

Cultivating a network of collaborators has certainly been a key part of Kartemquin’s legacy. When I interviewed one of your former interns, Rebecca Parrish, she told me about the guidance you provided her during the production of her feature debut, “Radical Grace.” She referred to you as a “documentary Buddha.”

We have a new tagline at Kartemquin: “We make documentary films and documentary filmmakers.” We’re producing the next generation here and that’s an important part of our mission. Now we have transformed ourselves into a full-blown media arts organization. Chaz Ebert has been very supportive of what we’ve been doing over the last few years and has come to speak at our events. We also have a very robust intern program, and we’ll often have 70 applications for six slots. Each week, the interns get a two-hour workshop on everything from cameras, sound, editing, producing and budgeting to outreach and engagement. I will talk to them about fair use, intellectual property or documentary ethics, depending on what their backgrounds are. Many of the interns wind up working here. Justine Nagan, who now works at POV, started here as an intern. We also have KTQ Labs, which is a monthly program where anybody can come in and get their film critiqued by the Kartemquin creative team. It’s a chance for them to show a work-in-progress in a very constructive but pull-no-punches kind of atmosphere. 

We are currently in our third year of the Diverse Voices in Docs program, which we do in conjunction with the Community Film Workshop on the South Side. It takes place on one Saturday per month for over six months, so working people can come to it, and it’s for minority filmmakers who have probably gone to film school or have already made a film. It’s not a beginner’s workshop. When we were adapting the program to suit the students’ particular needs, we realized that what they needed, above all, was an understanding of how to get a film funded and how to pitch it. We work with them on their demo reels, on their proposals and their log lines, and everything they need in order to show people that their film in development is worthy of the necessary money. At the end of that program, they will pitch their film to actual funders, some of whom got to come in from ITVS. So now, Kartemquin is a media arts organization that has these various missions at different levels of trying to develop filmmakers, but also a place where filmmakers are welcome to come in and collaborate.

The next two films following your debut, “Home For Life,” were 1968’s “Thumbs Down” and “Inquiring Nuns,” both featuring people of faith in the city.

We were commissioned by the Catholic Adult Education Center to do a series of films that would get people in Catholic churches all across the country talking about what was then called the “generation gap.” “Thumbs Down” was about a youth group in a Catholic parish on the northwest side of Chicago where the firemen and the policemen are. It was kind of a conservative neighborhood, but these kids were being influenced by the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, and the film builds up to the youth mass held by these students. Gerald and I were a couple of nice Jewish boys who were interested in vérité filmmaking, and we decided that we would just convince these guys that our approach was what they needed. “Inquiring Nuns” is really an homage to the scene in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s “Chronicle of a Summer” where two women go around, asking people if they are happy. That inspired us to have two nuns asking people that same question on the streets of Chicago. The most difficult part about that film was finding the two nuns. We talked to a lot of nuns in order to find the right two that we felt had the potential to be really good interviewers, and they were terrific.

“Radical Grace” seems to echo the essence of those pictures, in how it uncovers a little-seen, more progressive side of the church.

Exactly, these were progressive Catholics, and the people who were funding us were progressive Catholics as well. Neither of the women who were in the film are nuns anymore. They left the order a long time ago but those social values remained a central part of their lives. On the DVD, we include an interview with the nuns 40 years later. One went on to work in education, and the other was in social work. I don’t think you could make the film now. If people were approached by a pair of nuns and a cameraman today, they would think that it’s a put-on from Jay Leno or Saturday Night Live. No one would take it seriously. But in 1968, the nuns were taken for precisely who they were and people responded to them sincerely.

The themes of race and gentrification in your films “Winnie Wright, Age 11” and “Now We Live On Clifton” are as relevant today as they were in 1974.

The irony is that, as relevant as those film are today, they no longer reflect the neighborhoods in which they are set. “Now We Live On Clifton” took place over by DePaul when it was being gentrified, and “Winnie Wright, Age 11” is near Marquette Park. We made those films at the height of the collective. We got a little grant and we wanted to make films about white working class kids growing up in urban environments. At that time, everyone thought of the inner city as being comprised of black neighborhoods, and we wanted to show that there are white working class kids growing up in the city. We weren’t looking for the racists, we were looking for kids who had black friends and who were progressive. Our goal was to look at race and gentrification through the eyes of kids, and what it means to kids when their neighborhood starts to change. 

Since you’ve played multiple roles on various documentaries, what would you consider your favorite part of the filmmaking process?

It’s complicated since I’ve done virtually everything. I began doing sound, and then I was an assistant editor for several years before “Home For Life.” I continued to make my living as an editor for a few years after that, but what I found was that if you look at those early films, you’ll see I wasn’t very good at editing my own footage. By the time we got to “Golub,” Jerry was really becoming our editor. I taught him editing, and then gradually sort of phased myself out as an editor, particularly on my own films, because of my inability to be brutal with my own footage. You have to be willing to take a great shot and cut it up into little pieces. But I love being out in the field shooting, and still do some of that. I also enjoy being in the editing room with the filmmakers that we’re working with, and really getting into the nitty gritty of storytelling and structure. Fundraising has always been a painful process.

What inspired you to make two films about the artist Leon Golub, first in 1988 and then in 2004?

Jerry Blumenthal, Judy Hoffman and I made a film about this artist, who came out of Chicago but was based in New York. The film was really good, and we became friends with Leon and stayed in touch with him. Quite a few years later when he was considerably older and facing issues of mortality, Jerry really drove the idea of a follow-up project that revisited Leon and saw how his work had evolved. It was going to be a standalone half-hour film, and at a certain point we realized that it would actually be much more interesting to see the two films together. We shortened the new footage a bit and added a title that reads “13 years later.” Then we released it as a new film and showed it in festivals and on TV. Everyone treated it like a new film, which was fine with us.

Golub often portrayed imagery that was culled from the news, immortalizing real-life events much like a documentarian does.

Right, and of course we use tons and tons of images from the news and other sources in that film. We ended up getting involved in the fair use battle, and ultimately won our fair use rights back. Over the years, Kartemquin has been engaged in media advocacy, standing up for our field and fighting battles that are going to affect everyone in our field. We were the midwest representative in the group that lobbied for ITVS. We made “Golub” before we had won our fair use rights back, so we were shooting images crudely off a video screen and you could see the scan lines. Jerry and I figured that since we’re talking about an artist using images that are out there in the world, the scan lines totally work since we don’t want that footage to look like everything else that we had shot. That’s how we released the film and that’s how it was broadcast. When we made the DVD and the film got digitized, the scan lines were not as pronounced. I actually liked it better when you could clearly see the big black line moving through the frame. No one ever bothered us about the footage partly because it was so transformed by what we had done.

But with “Hoop Dreams,” we had to license “Happy Birthday” when the family sings “Happy Birthday” to the boy. In the scene where William [Gates] is having his knee operated on, there is Muzak coming out of the speakers in the hospital, and we had to license that music too, not because we thought we had to. We had to because of the gatekeepers: the broadcasters, theatrical distributors and insurance people. They were like, “Everything needs to be licensed.” Now we have essentially won our fair use rights back by getting our field organized under the leadership of Pat Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi from American University, who published the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practice in Fair Use

The big rights holders never sue you because they would lose and it would set a bad precedent, but they threaten everybody. You get a letter from Sony or Disney and you go, “I can’t stand up against them,” but now we can because the field has spoken and published this statement. We’re not saying that everything is okay, we’re saying that we’re rights holders too and that we’re on both sides of this issue. Peter, Pat and a core group of us spent years speaking at lawyer conventions, explaining fair use and how it was being taught wrong in school. Not only did we get our fair use claims broadcast, we also get insurance for it. So it’s been a huge sea change in terms of what documentary filmmakers can do. It was there in the law all along, but people were intimidated from asserting their rights. A lot can change when you stand up together as a group.

I know many colleagues who are facing claims regarding their video essays on YouTube.

That’s absolutely fair use. Film criticism is one of your strongest uses. Everyone has followed in our suit. There’s one for poetry, one for visual artists, one for digital media, even one for dance archives. If people are taking down your videos, you have to push back, and by pushing back as a class of people, we were able to make them understand that. Make the gatekeepers understand that you’re not going to be intimidated. 

What was it like collaborating with a journalist, Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich, on the film “Prisoner of Her Past”?

We did two projects in which the Tribune was involved. Steve James and Peter Gilbert’s film about the death penalty, “At the Death House Door,” was based on Tribune stories and the reporters appear in the film. “Prisoner of Her Past” emerged from a meeting between John Callaway and Howard Reich, who had written these articles about his mother, a childhood Holocaust survivor. Howard had approached WTTW with the material, and John told him that he should really talk to Kartemquin and to me. I had never been interested in doing a film about the Holocaust, but Howard’s story of his mother’s post-traumatic stress and survival during the war was enough to motivate me to do the film. In her old age, Howard’s mother was thinking that people were trying to kill her. She had to be in an institution and she ran away while reliving these traumatic experiences she had as a young girl. We went back to Ukraine, to the village where she had grown up and found her house.

I wanted to give the film a contemporary frame. Howard and I were looking for a story set in a place like Sudan, where children were working through their trauma after having experienced something horrible. Then I got a call from Howard, who was in New Orleans covering the post-Katrina impact on the local jazz community. He ran into a whole team of psychiatrists who had been working with traumatized school kids from Katrina. I said, “Say no more, we’re on our way.” It turned out that we didn’t have to go to a foreign country in order to find traumatized children. The story was basically around the corner.

One of my favorite Kartemquin filmmakers is Maria Finitzo, who made “5 Girls.”

Maria Finitzo has a new film out called “In the Game,” and it’s really good. Not only is it about the importance of team sports in young women’s lives, it’s about a regular Chicago high school—the kind of school they want to close. Charter schools are being built all around this institution that has deep roots in the community. Everyone is arguing these days about schools and test scores, and we wanted to actually look inside one of these schools and spend time with the people that work there and are enrolled there. Let’s spend a couple of years there and see the impact that this kind of school is having on kids’ lives.

That film is especially vital at a time when our own governor is referring to Chicago’s schools as “crumbling prisons.”

Someone challenged him once and asked, “Well, could you be more specific? Can you mention a school that you have actually been in?” And he couldn’t. He’s a joke. 

Another timely Kartemquin title is Brad Lichtenstein’s “As Goes Janesville,” in which Wisconsin emerges as a microcosm for the entire country. Lichtenstein told me that he wanted to give viewers the opportunity to connect with characters whose beliefs may be different from their own.

I don’t think we, as filmmakers, are ever objective. You point the camera one way rather than another way and you’ve created a point of view. If you’re filming a demonstration and you’re standing behind the police lines, that is a point of view. If you’re standing with the demonstrators, you’ve got a different view of what you’re seeing. I don’t think any of us really claim to be objective. The point is that you want to get the different sides of the story and you want to be fair to people. Here is a wonderful example from another one of Maria’s films, “Terra Incognita,” about stem cell research. With all this controversy about the issue, we really wanted to show the other side in a way that was fair rather than demeaning. 

Maria went to film a discussion about stem cell research at a church where adults were sitting in kids’ desks while being preached at. We couldn’t use the footage because they looked absolutely ridiculous. So we kept trying to find a way to show the other side with respect and basically failed. The priest that we ultimately got an interview with was more of a professional spokesman and he was a lunatic. He compared killing embryos to slavery. Sometimes it’s really hard. Steve is a master at finding a way to take a balanced view. The central character in “At the Death House Door” had presided over 99 executions, and then realized that the death penalty was wrong. He told us, “Look, I’m to the right of Attila the Hun. I’m a very conservative guy.” His perspective provided a way in for people who may not normally be sympathetic to the film’s subject.

This again illustrates Kartemquin’s uncanny ability to break through societal barriers and find the humanity within any given topic.

You have to go where the story takes you. In the case of “Happy Mother’s Day,” the filmmakers had been sent to North Dakota to make a film about the birth of quintuplets. In the ’60s, that was international news, since it was before fertility drugs. What they found was a very quiet farm wife who the town was trying to turn into a movie star. The town fathers were like, “This is going to put us on the map, and all these tourists will come,” while the wife and her husband were like, “We just want to go back to our real life.” That’s what the film is about, and the filmmakers obviously hadn’t been sent there to capture that story. PET Milk was behind the film, and when they saw it, they were horrified. Footage ended up being cut from the film prior to it being broadcast. 

One of our core values at Kartemquin is that when we go into a situation, we must observe what’s happening there. “Stevie” is a great example of that. We did not set out to make a film that was a portrait of a troubled young man who molested his niece. It hadn’t happened when we started making the film, it happened while we were making it. Another example would be the most recent film I directed [with Bob Hercules], “A Good Man.” It's about Bill T. Jones, the most important modern dance choreographer in America today. He’s African-American and Lincoln is his hero. As he’s working with Janet Wong, his associate artistic director, on creating a piece in honor of Lincoln’s Bicentennial, they discover texts in which the president voiced racist beliefs about black people not being equal. Bill is like, “Lincoln said that?” You can’t prepare for moments like that. You may have strategies about what you might find, but sometimes the story goes somewhere you never expected it to, and it becomes a different movie. 

Kartemquin Films' 50th Anniversary Gala will be held on Friday, June 24th, in Chicago. For information and tickets, visit the official Kartemquin site. Click here for highlights of various upcoming anniversary events.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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