Top docmakers collaborate on school closings impact

In an unprecedented collaboration, filmmakers from documentary powerhouses Kartemquin Films, Media Process Group, Siskel/Jacobs Productions, and The Kindling Group are documenting the aftermath of the largest mass school closure in U.S. history.

“We’ve all worked together in different capacities, but putting us all together is unprecedented,” says Bob Hercules, co-owner of Media Process Group.

The project includes a feature doc and a series of short videos that will be released over the course of production, which is planned to run through the school year.

Jon Siskel and Greg JacobsJon Siskel and Greg Jacobs of Siskel/Jacobs (Louder Than A Bomb) initiated the currently untitled Schools Project last spring, after Chicago Public Schools announced it would close 50 schools, displacing some 46,000 students.

“As documentary filmmakers we could dig deeper and stay with impacted communities in ways that other media can’t,” Siskel says.  “Handling the closure of 50 schools was way too big for Siskel/Jacobs, but we thought maybe we could reach out to friends at other companies.”

“We want to use our documentary storytelling techniques to enrich and inform the public conversation and try to bring as much nuance and diversity of points of view to a story that is so big and touches on so many different aspects of government, communities, families, and individuals.”

Jacobs and Siskel proposed the collaboration to Hercules and his MPG partner Keith Walker, and then the group expanded to include Kartemquin, Kindling, and Free Spirit Media, which provides video production training to teens, and is housed in MPG’s West Loop facility.

Each team covers a different school in transition

Each team is following students, their families, and staff from closing schools as they make the transition.  Media Process Group is covering Overton School on the South Side. Siskel/Jacobs are documenting Trumbull School on the North Side.

Kartemquin artistic director Gordon Quinn and former Kartemquin intern Rachel Dickson is taking Lafayette School on the West Side.

They filmed the spring meetings where the school board approved the closures, protests against the closings, and interviews with school board member Andrea Zopp, and education reporters Linda Lutton of WBEZ and Sarah Karp of Catalyst.

Editor and coproducer is freelancer Melissa Sterne, who cut Hercules’s films Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance and Radical Disciple: The Story of Father Pfleger.

Reaching out to various media organizations

The filmmakers are in talks with WTTW to run the short videos on Chicago Tonight and the station’s website, and to serve as the presenting station for the feature doc.

They’re also in discussions with the Chicago History Museum about archiving the material produced for the doc, and negotiating potential partnerships with the Sun-Times and Chicago Public Media.

Initial support from the Driehaus Foundation has covered hard costs, but the crews have been working for free, and they still need to raise the production budget.

“If you do it the standard documentary way, you shoot for a year, take a year to cut it together, two years later it comes out and has no effect on the civic conversation as it’s happening,” Jacobs says.

“There will be people covering it day-to-day, but eventually it falls off the front page, or off the radar entirely.  There’s this space between daily journalism and documentary, a big gap that people are trying to fill. It’s an interesting civic journalism project, to work in a way that would fill that gap.”