Exhibit Highlights 50 Years of Kartemquin Films History

“Kartemquin Films: Democracy through Documentary, 1966-2016” is a retrospective highlighting 50 years of Kartemquin history. The exhibit is available at Expo 72, 72 E. Randolph St., Chicago. I had the chance to check it out when I visited the windy city a couple weeks ago.

Centered around themes of craft, community, and change, the curated items represent the organization’s history and ideologies, not to mention documentary history more generally.

Kartemquin Films is committed to social documentary filmmaking in the cinéma vérité traditions. People and their stories drive their films. Emotions, particularly empathy, engage audiences to understand the complexities of the lived realities represented before them.

The following John Dewey quote, which appears on the exhibit’s wall, says it better than I do:

“Artists have always been the real purveyors of the news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.”

Dewey’s ideas inform and inspire throughout the exhibit and the organization’s history. In his University of Chicago thesis paper titled “Cinéma Verité in a Democracy,” co-founder Gordon Quinn cites another of Dewey’s books. One exhibit visitor picked up on the importance, writing a note that stated, “My favorite piece in the exhibit is Gordon’s copy of Dewey’s book with underlined statements that defined his life.”

Two key questions engage exhibit visitors, asking for their written responses on notecards. The first question asks, “Is the personal political?” — a question emerging from sociologist C. Wright Mills’s ideas in the 1950s and amplifying during the social movements in the 1960s. This question pushes a huge turn in documentary production during the 1960s and 1970s. It continues within Kartemquin’s films, and others’ films, even today. On the board, one person wrote, “Is water wet?”, to emphasize what they saw as an “obvious” question.

The other question asks, “Are you happy?” in reference to Kartemquin’s second film Inquiring Nuns (1968). Taking cue from Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, Inquiring Nuns follows Sisters Marie Arné and Mary Campion as they ask people in Chicago this very same question. On the board my favorite written response was, “Like Chicago weather, the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will change, just stick around.”

The 55-film catalog serves as the exhibit’s centerpiece. By picking up a postcard bearing a QR code, viewers can check out clips from every film across the decades, including 2016 releases Raising Bertie and the upcoming Unbroken Glass.

Not surprisingly, the iconic Hoop Dreams receives particularly detailed attention, with marketing materials, educational materials, archival photos, press coverage, film reels, and the original project proposal. One panel shows the discarded design mock-ups for the film’s theatrical release poster, which reveal part of the struggle the organization undertook to ensure their social messages came through even though mainstream marketing focused more on the overcoming-the-odds story. I had the chance to peruse those Hoop Dreams boxes, and the documents therein further detail the extent of this struggle.

The exhibit also shows connections to documentary film history, particularly through changes in equipment and technology. The famed Camera #1 is on display right in front. The camera shows the ingenuity and flexibility needed when it came to using and adapting equipment toward storytelling goals. One picture reminds us what editing used to be like before AVID and Final Cut.

Quirky gems appear throughout the exhibit, such as a 1980 “thank you” letter from Nicaragua for the gift of an Auricon 16mm camera Kartemquin donated to the Sandista government to “document the revolution.” A taped-up office chair was the seat from which Kartemquin co-founder Jerry Temaner wrote the organization’s founding “Cinematic Social Inquiry” manifesto. Buttons promote films and related social justice movements. There is even information about the mid-1970s distribution efforts via Haymarket Films, a short-lived offshoot company named for the 1886 labor demonstration that was bombed, elicited gunfire, and resulted in multiple deaths. The Haymarket events represent a significant event in Chicago’s labor history as demonstrators sought an eight-hour workday. One photo that I did wonder about showed a man holding a large snake. No text accompanied the photo to explain.

While many cool and interesting things appear in the exhibit, my favorite image appears in the Hoop Dreams section. It is a sketch of a basketball player shooting the ball over an Oscar statue into the bucket. A single T-pin holds it to the wall, and no caption or quote appears to explain it. The image refers to the controversy over Hoop Dreams not earning an Oscar nomination despite its immensely popular reception.

The framed version of this image hangs in the second-floor bathroom in the house on Wellington Street. It accompanies a framed quote from Britney Spears — “Sundance is weird. The movies are weird — you actually have to think about them when you watch them” — and the usual bathroom etiquette signs. To me, the image and its placement say so much about Kartemquin, their perseverance, and the sense of humor needed to persevere as long as they have.

The exhibit runs through August 20. Admission is free. For more information about the exhibit and the schedule of gallery talks, see www.ktq50.org/exhibit.

Leave a Reply