At Sundance w/Kartemquin’s Steve James & Zak Piper

Reel Chicago correspondent, reporter, and film critic Pamela Powell interviews Kartemquin Films’ Oscar-nominated director Steve James and Emmy Award-winning producer Zak Piper at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Chicago-based documentarian Steve James presented his newest endeavor, a four-episode mini series City So Real, to the Sundance Film Festival patrons just days ago in the quaint ski village of Park City, Utah to rave reviews.

City So Real was James’ ninth project to screen at Sundance, following Hoop Dreams (1994) and America to Me (2018). The series marks his third in collaboration with producer Zak Piper, following The Interrupters (2011) and Life Itself (2014).

I had a chance to sit down with James and Producer Zak Piper just hours before its premiere to discuss the making of this series and how it will resonate with all Americans, not just Chicagoans.


Pamela Powell (PP): When did you start this project and why? Steve James (SJ): It was 4th of July, 2018. I’ve been in Chicago for a long time and I’ve had it in my mind for a long time that I wanted to do a portrait of Chicago. … When it came around to this past year with the most open mayoral election … ever, coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, I just thought this is a perfect time. We’ll use the election and the trial as important spines … and hopefully [show] a larger portrait of the city and its people and what’s going on now. And what’s going on now in Chicago is what’s going on across America. The struggles that Chicago’s having with money, with race, with police, with development, with gentrification: all these are issues are national in scope and they’re very potent in Chicago.

Zak Piper (ZP): The issues and the issues that the series covers is what’s happening around the country and in other cities. As Steve mentioned, with police misconduct, but also just sort of a mistrust. [In] the series, we get into the [Alderman] Ed Burke corruption and there’s a serious disconnect between those who are governing and those who are the people.


The access you have and the trust of the neighborhoods’ residents is awe-inspiring. How did you gain access and even more importantly, trust? SJ: I think it’s the kind of thing where we’ve been doing this for awhile (laughs) and I think if people understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and they think it’s a good idea or believe in it even, then people are remarkably open and they want to be heard. Most of the films that we’ve done … has been about people who tend to be [the] marginalized voices, [those] who don’t feel like anyone cares what they have to say. So when we show up and the way in which we ingratiate ourselves into situations, we let people know that we’re here to hear from them and people have a lot to say.

Steve James at Sundance
Steve James at Sundance

How did you choose your locations and events? I imagine there was a lot of prep work! SJ: A lot of it was serendipitous.

ZP: We were in contact with the campaign so we knew where some of that was happening but we were also following a lot of things on Twitter and the AP Day Book.

SJ: Zak was all over that stuff.

ZP: We would meet in the morning and have an idea about what we were going to do, but then just depending on the day, we would break away and do something else. Or we’d meet someone and it would turn into a whole other thing.

SJ: That South Side barber shop, our impetus to go there was that was the barber shop where Harith Augustus was working when he was killed by the cops. We went in there initially thinking we’re going to hear what kind of person Harith was … but that wasn’t nearly as interesting as when that guy walks in to get a hair cut (laughs)! … And then when we went to the Bridgeport barbershop. We knew we wanted to contrast barbershops, but … we didn’t know they were ex-cops until it was revealed in the course of their conversation when the guy tells the joke. We preserve that in the film, too, so that when you’re watching it, you don’t know who these guys are and then you find out that they’re cops and they have some pretty strong ideas. (Laughs!)

(James continued…)

We went to that South Side pharmacy because we had heard it’s where Martin Luther King had gone when he was living in Chicago and (protesting). We heard that they had these pictures of that neighborhood, Lawndale, back in the day. … We had no idea we were going to meet this guy Percy, this 85 year old nutrition expert. Those were the kind of things we tried to be open to. We may go in with one idea … but it’s always way more interesting when we get surprised and it goes wherever it wants to go.

City So Real”

That brings a true narrative arc to your documentary; we are entertained and educated. What’s your mindset when you’re filming? SJ: A lot of it is just a process of discovery while we’re out there. We know we’re trying to do this portrait of Chicago centered around the election. Zak’s seriously following the day to day of what is going on in the various campaigns that look appealing to us. For example, Lori Lightfoot when she voted. You see this in episode four. She goes in and votes. She takes her wife and daughter to vote early. Zak had read about it in the day book. There were a couple of press people who showed up to interview her after she voted, but we showed up and walked with her and saw her vote. We got this really beautiful and sweet and intimate scene with her and her family voting for herself for mayor. … This was really something and it was way better than we imagined. … A lot of it is just being open to where it wants to take you and where the story wants to take us. That’s the reason documentaries are so exciting to make because you’re not working off of a script. … You have ideas about what you need to get, you have to, you have to constantly be revising. What is the story we’re telling? But it’s based on what we’re seeing and capturing, not on what we think it should be.

When we put a film together, to a degree, we want the experience to be … almost a distilled version of the experience we had making it. The things that opened our eyes. The things that surprised us. The things that took a turn that we didn’t expect. We preserved that quality in the cutting because that’s dramatic. It’s interesting and people are funny and we’re always interested in people who are funny! (Laughs!)


I don’t think you could make up some of the characters you have in this! ZP: Wait till you see three and four! | SJ: Three and four get more intense and funnier!

I’m going to assume that the candidates were more than cooperative, right? No? I can see by the look on your face! SJ: Some of the candidates who were not considered the machine, or the Preckwinkles, the Daley’s, we tried to get in with all of them. Didn’t have much luck. … Because we’re a documentary long after the candidate’s campaign is completed, we’re not going to help them. We’re not publicity. They tended to look at it as only potential downside, like what if they see something that we don’t want them to see. Preckwinkle for example, and you’ll see as you watch further, if we had been inside that campaign, we probably would have gotten booted out when all this Burke stuff started happening. Some of the scrappier campaigns like Amara (Enyia), and even Willie Wilson —he’s a gift from the Gods — and it he gets more and more interesting.

Does he? Oh, my because he’s quite a character already! SJ: There’s plenty more to come with him! They had some reservations and some concerns we had to overcome, but we were able to gain that access and so it didn’t ultimately matter whether people cooperated with us or not because we were going to be at events and see them. Like Toni (Preckwinkle), we’re going to reveal their campaign even if we’re not in strategy meetings. … I think the series reveals the essence of her campaign and why she lost.

I was shocked about the election process; the time, the money, the paperwork, signatures, legal challenges! Were either of you surprised by anything? SJ: Here’s a situation where all of these people believe they can be mayor of Chicago from various walks of life and class and race, and the person who won … no one would have predicted [her] to be the winner.

ZP: I knew that there was a petition process and that there were challenges, but I had no idea about the length of time and the money. What ends up happening as the result of this is unless you have serious money to pay a campaign lawyer, you will not be able to sustain a challenge and you will not be a candidate. … That’s really sad and it’s by design.

SJ: And the amount of gamesmanship, that was completely new to me. … Even candidates that do have the resources, just the time with dealing with that crap and spending money on it and getting frustrated with it. That’s why Lori Lightfoot was so angry at Preckwinkle for challenging her because she didn’t have a lot of resources and she didn’t have [time] to deal with it. If you call yourself a progressive like Preckwinkle, why would you go and challenge another Black female candidate? Well, because you’re my competition. We spent a lot of time at the Board of Elections! LAUGHS! We could have made the whole film just on that.

The South Side barbershop scene really sticks in my mind because there was so much anger, but they still talked and listened to one another. SJ: One of the things we were struck by and I’m going to generalize a little bit here, but I think in the Black community, there’s more of a willingness to engage in that way and not have it be, well, I’m leaving, I can’t deal with you. At the end, the guy’s asking about [hair cuts] and he’s just had this knock down drag out argument with him. That rarely happens, in my experience, in the White community. And that white barbershop, if they had differing ideas of who should be mayor, they probably steered clear of talking about it too much because there’s this feeling of if we’re friends, we can’t get into things.

ZP: In the barbershop specifically, there was just a lot of passion.

SJ: And Black people in general were more engaged in this election in my observation.

ZP: And the Laquan McDonald trial, the level of engagement and the lack of engagement with white people, it was like two different cities. It was like it wasn’t even happening on the North Side, in Lincoln Park, but in Beverly it was happening. It was on their minds, on the tv set on that Friday night.

SJ: It was in their lives.

Tell me about your son Jackson who worked on this series with you. SJ: He worked on Life Itself and he worked on America to Me. He’s just a really talented young guy. This is by far his most involved. He was core in this series. It was wonderful for me as a proud dad to work with him, but it wasn’t just like I’m giving him a break. He really contributed mightily as did Zak to the creative vision to what this thing became. It was hugely collaborative.

What is the ultimate message of the series? SJ: I think the series shows both what is wrong and what can be right with elections in this country. What can be wrong? You see the dirty tricks, you see the corruption of Chicago, you see the gamesmanship that’s not really about who’s the best candidate, it’s about the stuff we were talking about. You see people who are running for office who you hope will not win, but then you also see this vibrant political culture in Chicago where people are engaged, very engaged. … Lori Lightfoot, a month out from the first election, she was at 2.8% and she came from nowhere and won. That’s a message I think people need to see too is that it is possible, you don’t have to be the machine candidate, you don’t have to have all the resources in the world to win, it helps, but you can overcome that. I think there’s some inspiration in this. too.

Steve James, Pamela Powell, and Zak Piper at Sundance
Steve James, Pamela Powell, and Zak Piper at Sundance

About Pamela Powell
Pamela Powell, member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, writes for numerous publications across the country including FF2 Media, Fete Lifestyle Magazine, Q Voice, and The Daily Journal. She focuses on independent film and women filmmakers, giving these groups a louder voice in the film industry.