By Jason Kelly, courtesy of the University of Chicago Magazine
Photo courtesy of Kartemquin Films

The way that I think you get people to change their thinking is you approach them on an emotional level. You make them feel something.”
—Gordon Quinn, AB’65
Co-founder and artistic director of Kartemquin Films

Editor's note: This story is adapted from the Spring 2016 issue of The University of Chicago Magazine. Read it in its entirety here.

In 1994, Kartemquin Films was approaching 30 years of filmmaking. The nonprofit’s documentaries were politically trenchant and critically acclaimed, but not widely seen. Then its 26th film, Hoop Dreams, won the audience award for best documentary at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival. It went on to earn more than $11 million worldwide at the box office (it had cost $700,000 to make). Recent movies, like The Interrupters (2011) and Life Itself (2014), also have received national attention.

Now, with a golden anniversary gala on the calendar and 10 films in production, the UChicago alumni-driven Kartemquin is still the artistic force for social justice its founders envisioned, trying to spark “democracy through documentary.”

Cofounder and artistic director Gordon Quinn, AB’65, calls Kartemquin today “a full-blown media arts organization.” That’s a long way from its three-man beginnings in the Hyde Park Bank building in 1966, and even from the relatively ad-hoc operation of a decade ago. He has been there from day one, the “quin” in Kartemquin, a portmanteau formed with the last names of the other founders—Stan Karter, X’66, and Jerry Temaner, AB’57, whose tenures were brief. The three heard echoes of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin in the name. The filmmakers Kartemquin. Like the crew on Eisenstein’s cinematic ship, they saw themselves as rebels against prevailing authority, although their most important filmmaking influences were more contemporary.

As undergrads who belonged to Doc Films, they were entranced by the icons of the detached observational style called cinema verité—Jean Rouch, Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker. For Kartemquin’s first film, Home for Life (1966), he and Temaner followed two new residents of a home for the elderly. The filmmakers consciously kept themselves at a remove from the subjects, producing a fly-on-the-wall documentary without imposing a point of view. Scenes ran long—some excessively so, Temaner recalls some viewers saying—to capture life as it unfolded.

“Our idea at that time,” he says, “was to give people the opportunity to figure out things themselves.” Roger Ebert, X’70, in his first year as the Chicago Sun-Times film critic, called Home for Life “extraordinarily moving,” and it was named best American film at the 1967 Chicago International Film Festival.

The late Jerry Blumenthal, AB’58, AM’59, joined that year, in order to dedicate himself “to a life of penury and pleasure, making movies, that is,” he wrote in a historical essay about Kartemquin. As the filmmakers honed their craft while supporting themselves on outside projects—industrial and educational films and the like—Kartemquin’s work became more overtly political. In the 1970s the organization operated as a collective (since the 1980s it has been a nonprofit organization). Leftist political positions superseded filmmaking skills as a prerequisite to join. Members represented the civil rights, black power, antiwar, and women’s liberation movements, among others.

The films Kartemquin made in that era emerged from relationships with local activist groups such as the working-class youth movement Rising Up Angry, steel workers’ unions, and striking doctors at Cook County Hospital. “We really made connections with what was going on in Chicago in a progressive way,” says cinematographer and videographer Judy Hoffman, a collective member who is now a professor of practice in UChicago’s cinema and media studies department. “What kinds of films did they need to get their work done?”

Echoing the College and John Dewey 

Kartemquin’s films have always addressed social issues, and Quinn once considered himself an activist first and foremost. His perspective began to shift while at work with Blumenthal on their 1988 film Golub, about antiwar artist Leon Golub, AB’42. The documentary represented a “bridge,” Hoffman says, between the overtly political work that preceded it and the focus on emotional identification with individuals that defined subsequent films—to the greatest popular acclaim in Hoop Dreams. “The way that I think you get people to change their thinking is you approach them on an emotional level,” Quinn says now. “You make them feel something.”

The subjects and styles of Kartemquin films vary widely, but Quinn is always asking himself, “How can we show the consequences in people’s lives of the decisions that are made in a democracy?” The question echoes an idea Quinn encountered in the College that has bent the arc of his career. It comes from the educator and pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who co-founded the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools: “Artists have always been the real purveyors of the news. For it’s not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception, and appreciation.”

News, in Dewey’s formulation, was transitory spectacle, undigested information or passing images of misfortune. “What we would call sensationalism,” Quinn says. Deep exploration of the real-world impact of policies, expression of the complex ways events shape people’s lives—that was the artist’s responsibility. It’s a responsibility Quinn continues to embrace, and to pass down to new generations of documentary makers. And Kartemquin’s stable of filmmakers and list of films are growing. Its 27 releases since 2000 represent more than half the organization’s total output.

Kartemquin’s reputation in the independent documentary industry now attracts waves of new producers and directors. With her UChicago students, Hoffman says, the name carries almost mythological status. For Susan Gzesh, AB’72, executive director of the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights and senior lecturer in the College, Quinn’s founding philosophy was prescient. The students she teaches in the College today embrace visual culture, in particular documentary, as a medium for telling stories.

As Kartemquin’s audience and influence have grown over the past half century, so has Quinn’s view of the forces that give documentary film its persuasive power—art and activism. At a recent board meeting, a question arose about where members fall along the spectrum between those two supposed poles. Quinn rejected the entire premise. “It’s a false dichotomy. That was my problem with it,” he says. “You have to be about both, and you can be extreme about both.”

Originally published on May 23, 2016.