Kartemquin at 46 still serving the public interest

“Interrupter” Ameena Matthews

In September, Kartemquin Films will celebrate its 46th anniversary, having traveled from a ‘60s hippy-ish “film collective” to its current status as one of America’s most influential documentary filmmaking entities.  

Kartemquin’s unfailing work over the years on behalf of the media’s ability to serve the public interest does not go unrecognized.

Recently, it received the Benton Foundation’s Media Pioneer Award in support of its advocacy efforts on issues such as defending the Digital Millenium Copyright Act’s exemption for documentary filmmakers and the successful PBS Needs Indies outcome in the dispute about public television’s commitment to independent films.

“We just need to stand up for our rights and fight for them,” says filmmaker Gordon Quinn, a Kartemquin founder, who has been cinematically fighting for those rights since 1966.

Gordon Quinn, Kartemquin artistic director, founding memberKartemquin Films began looking closely at society from the point-of-view of people on at the bottom: strikers, future basketball stars, nuns, pregnant moms, Muhammad Ali, painters, gang interrupters, stem cell research. 

Forty-three films to date and seven presently in the pipeline.

The strength of Kartemquin’s filmmaking, which finds wide appeal and garners every award (except for the infamous Academy Awards snubs of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters), is built on the stories of the voiceless. 

“Our mission has been to tell the story of an issue by starting at the bottom and burrowing our way to the top,” said Quinn.

“Hoop Dreams” for example, takes us into the worlds of two boys whose lives are all but invisible to the media until they compete to become basketball stars. But we also learn about their values, competition, race and culture. We root for and with them.

The Interrupters exemplifies docs influence society

True to the storytelling mission, Steve James’ influential 2011 feature documentary, The Interrupters, follows Chicago’s CeaseFire violence prevention organization of ex-felons entering heated gang meetings to stop potential killings.

The film won best documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards, was aired on Frontline, and screened for the United Nations. 

But for Quinn, the real achievement is wha’s been happening as a result of the film: many international cities, including Bermuda and Halifax, Canada are now considering using the CeaseFire model.

Vexed by the alarming rise in gangrelated murders, Mayor Emanuel in February arranged for an unusual private screening for the heads of the police, public health, public schools and city hall staffs.   

After the bloody Memorial Day weekend, the Mayor asked the Chicago Police Department to enlist CeaseFire activists to help them to coordinate efforts to stem the violence in the high-crime areas such as the Grand-Crossing and Ogden police districts.

CeaseFire received an unprecedented $1 million check from the City one day to expand their work after they helped arrange the surrender of a teenager wanted in connection with the shooting of two girls.

Quinn believes that the film is successful because “it’s about three people who work for CeaseFire, if we’d made a film about how CeaseFire works, it wouldn’t be as strong.”

Helped sustain PBS’ commitment to docs
The Interrupters, however, hasn’t been Kartemquin’s only home run this year.

In March, Kartequin promptly acted when PBS moved ITVS’ long running series, POV and Independent Lens, to Thursday night, it caused a 42% drop in viewership. (On Thursday nights, PBS allows local stations to program what they wish.)

Quinn (who in the 1980s had lobbied Congress for the creation of ITVS) and a coalition of indie filmmakers calling themselves “PBS Needs Indies,” penned an open letter to PBS.

A Who’s Who of filmmakers, such as Barbara Kopple, Michael Moore and even PBS legend Bill Moyers, who helped bring the story to national prominence, joined in to express their dismay. 

PBS reconsidered and will now program POV and Independent Lens on Monday nights – PBS’s highest rated night.  Quinn says he’s “ready to support the new strategy and PBS in every way we can.”

These kinds of successes keep Quinn charged up about the power of documentaries, he also loves them because “every documentary is a different culture, Palestine, a strike in Indiana, gangs in Chicago.”

“The tools change but Kartemquin’s mission remains the same,” said Quinn, to “examine and critique society through the stories of real people.”

Kartemquin’s Sept. 21 gala event is also the launch of www.interruptviolence.com, an online, transmedia extension of The Interrupters.

Carey Lundin is president of Viva Lundin Productions, producers of documentary programming  carey@vivalundinproductions.com