Two $120K MacArthur grants to Kartemquin docs

Judith Helfand, producer/director of Cooked

Two films produced by Kartemquin Films each received $120,000 grants from the MacArthur Foundation: Judith Helfand for Cooked, about “the politics of disaster” after Chicago’s 1995 deadly heat wave, and Margaret Byrne’s Bertie County, about an alternative high school in rural North Carolina moving kids into the 21st Century.

Both producer/director Helfand, an established New York filmmaker/activist and Bryne, a College of DuPage motion picture television professor, will put their grant money towards postproduction.

Their grants were among nine national media projects that received a total of more than $1 million.

“This year’s film grantees tackle long-term and difficult issues through in-depth and compelling storytelling, illuminating under-reported issues and creating empathy for various points of view,” Kathy Im, MacArthur’s Director for Media, Culture, and Special Initiatives, said in a statement.  

MacArthur does “a tremendous amount of thinking about every film they support and the questions the films are asking,” Helfand, a Peabody winner, says.  “To have them support your line of inquiry and the discovery at the end of it is a big deal.”

Cooked proposes redefinition of disaster preparedness

Inspired by Eric Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave, Cooked begins with Chicago’s 1995 summer, when sweltering temperatures killed more than 700 people, mostly in low-income south and west side communities.

Cooling off in Chicago, 1995“Cooked proposes a redefinition of disaster preparedness to include “slow-moving disasters,” risk factors that Helfand says make life expectancy in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods 13 years shorter than in posher zip codes.

Since 2005, Helfand has been tracking several grassroots health providers that she says are key to improving neighborhoods’ ability to withstand disasters: groups like Growing Home, which employs ex-offenders on vacant Englewood lots converted to gardens and Inner-City Muslim Action Network.

“When people are already suffering from systemic inequity, disasters are much worse for them,” Helfand says.  “It’s much harder to bounce back.”

Helfand picked up shooting again last year, when she saw similar disparities in people’s ability to recover from Superstorm Sandy.  “The community organizations became the most critical first responders,” she says.  “They knew where the needs were, and people trusted them.”

Coproducing with Helfand is Chicago-based documentary producer Fenell Doremus, who spent 11 years at Kartemquin as an associate, winning multiple worldwide festival awards along the way. Kartemquin producer/director David Simpson (Milking the Rhino) will edit.

Raising Bertie started as a short video

Byrne first traveled to Bertie County, N.C. in 2006 to produce a short video honoring Vivian Saunders, executive director of an alternative high school for at-risk youth, with a focus on digital technology, and the challenges of preparing rural youth living in poverty to participate in the 21st Century economy.

Grant recipient Margaret Byrne for Bertie County.“I immediately knew that there was a much bigger story that needed to be told, and thus began my journey making Bertie County,” Byrne says.

“The goal is to engage people in these stories with the intention of improving graduation rates and bring people into the discussion about the education reform,” she says.

Byrne adds that she is honored to receive the MacArthur grant for Raising Bertie “and excited to be co-producing with such a talented team at Kartemquin.” 

This is Byrne’s first project with Kartemquin.