Several books cover the history of documentary film and video. Key themes such as auteurs, activism, technologies, and social changes weave throughout all of them. Independent documentary organizations such as Women Make Movies, New Day Films, and Kartemquin Films have made historical and contemporary contributions to the form. But for all their efforts, these organizations garner little more than brief references, if any reference at all, in these histories.

Based in Chicago, Kartemquin Films interests me in particular. One reason why is the location. For me growing up, Chicago was The City, home to all the major media, sports, entertainment, cultural attractions, and, of course, pizza. As I moved east for education and occupation, I was surprised to find just how infrequently Chicago media were mentioned. While Chicago mainstream media gain some mention, independent and public media garner even less, which is part of my motivation behind learning more about them.

Not surprisingly, Kartemquin Films has a strong Chicago connection, and many of its documentaries are about the city and its people in some way. The iconic Hoop Dreams follows two high-school students from the city who are recruited to play basketball and who have dreams of playing college and pro basketball. The Interrupters focuses on people who engage in violence prevention. The city also sets the stage for Roger Ebert’s post-college life in Life Itself. This tradition of focusing on Chicago extends back almost 50 years, to 1966, with Home for Life, about two residents who move into a “home for the aged” and the transitions they face during their first weeks there.

Whether the film subjects center on Chicago or not, Kartemquin Films focus on social justice and democracy. These are not buzzwords. They permeate not only the films, but also the fair use, filmmaker training and mentoring, and other advocacy activities. For the 45th anniversary, American University professor Patricia Aufderheide wrote about its evolution and commitment to social justice for In These Times. She cites co-founder Gordon Quinn in his quoting John Dewey’s words that inspired the beginning: “‘Artists have always been the real purveyors of the news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.'”

An organization based in Chicago that focuses strongly on the city for its subjects and advocacy might be dismissed as a regional group, yet Kartemquin Films has strong national and international presences. I have been following them for a while, and people associated with them are constantly traveling, speaking, filming, and engaging around the world.

Thanks to their generous access, I will be watching all of the films in Kartemquin’s catalog this year. I started with Home for Life, and I will be watching them in chronological order as best I can. From time to time, I will be writing about them here, looking at how the group has evolved from a collective in the 1970s into what it has become today.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.