As a native New Yorker and Brooklyn resident who covers the doc world as a journalist, I get a kick out of how many documentary filmmakers I bump into on the train, at industry events or literally on my block. But then an irritating sense of sameness creeps over me. It’s cool and all that so much doc talent is here, but what about the rest of the country?
At times like these, I think of Kartemquin, the long-standing documentary production company based in Chicago. The company has won pretty much every award in the industry many times over. Oh, except for an Oscar, but considering both its Hoop Dreams and Life Itself were shoe-ins to win (yes, my opinion, but one shared by many) in their respective years, I think the scourge of regionalism is at least partly to blame. But, luckily, being Midwestern, they’re not holding a grudge and they’re heading East. Kartemquin has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a series of events and screenings and starting this Friday, for two weeks, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens is hosting a major retrospective of the company’s productions including the essential Hoop Dreams, Stevie, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, The Interrupters and its latest film, Raising Bertie.
Co-founders Gordon Quinn, Steve James and other filmmakers will be at a number of the screenings for Q&As. I asked Quinn and Eric Hynes, Associate Curator of Film at the Museum of the Moving Image, to help prime us for what is sure to be a great, thoughtful celebration of non-Brooklynite non-fiction.
Tom Roston: What about Raising Bertie makes it uniquely a Kartemquin doc? Or is it a departure in some way?
Gordon Quinn: Raising Bertie is in keeping with our cinéma vérité roots. The fullness and complexity of the characters and the filmmakers’ refusal to reduce them or their stories to stereotypes is what attracted us to the project.
Roston: 50 years and 50+ films — What has been the key to Kartemquin’s longevity?
Quinn: We keep reinventing ourselves to respond to the historical period that we are in. Each film has its own dynamic, its own set of contradictions that it’s resolving, so each film is different from the one that came before it. A Kartemquin film must be true to the story it’s trying to tell.
Roston: How many of Kartemquin’s films are about Chicago and/or its surroundings?
Quinn: Easily over half, especially our earlier films. If you expand the question to include the Midwest region – so films like Typeface, Stevie, and As Goes Janesville, and Almost There would count – then it’s probably more like 90%. Even films like The Trials of Muhammad Ali or A Good Man have key Chicago components to their stories. And every film we have made has been edited here. This is important because we do see ourselves as regional filmmakers with an international footprint. We are taking Chicago films and filmmakers to the world. Our 50th Anniversary has been an opportunity to do that in many ways, like these retrospectives and the weekly free streaming of films on the website.
Roston: What’s one of your favorite docs about Chicago not produced by Kartemquin?
Quinn: A documentary made for the BBC called Chicago: First Impressions of a Great American City from the early sixties by Dennis Mitchell. It was banned by Mayor Daley and he threatened to go after anybody in the city who showed it.
Roston: How important has Hoop Dreams been to the financial/creative sustainability of Kartemquin?
Quinn: Very. Not only did it provide some financial benefits – although much less than people might think – making it also changed the way we thought about how we tell our stories and who we could hope to reach as an audience.
Roston: What is one of your favorite early Kartemquin films playing at MOMI during the retrospective?
Eric Hynes: An early Kartemquin film that I’m crazy about is Inquiring Nuns. It follows the example set by Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer and especially Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Love Meetings, in which ordinary people are approached on the street and asked to respond to a simple but profound question: “Are you happy?” Except here the interviewers are a pair of Chicago-based nuns in habits who are as untrained before the camera as their passerby interviewees. And this being 1968, the answers keep looping back to issues such as class, the youth movement, and Vietnam. Most people have so much to say, and collectively they turn a question about personal happiness into a chorus of essential thoughts and fears about the larger society.
Kartemquin at 50, a screening series celebrating the Chicago nonprofit production company, will be at the Museum of the Moving Image from August 19 to 28.