Navigating Violence and Alma’s Story in an Interactive Documemtary

The opening screen of Alma: A Tale of Violence
The opening screen of Alma: A Tale of Violence

In order to make interactive documentary reviews more focused and systematic, I will use the following outline: platform(s) used, story and structure, user role, navigation directions, navigation execution, and overall comments. Released first in 2011, Alma: A Tale of Violence represents my first application of this approach.

Alma: A Tale of Violence is an interactive documentary available online, on the iPad, and on Android. One of the earlier of the next generation of interactive documentaries, it tells the story of Alma, who joined a Guatemalan gang as a teen and managed to leave with her life as an adult. This review focuses on the web and iPad versions.

The primary story in Alma: A Tale of Violence belongs to Alma herself. In an almost 40-minute video interview, Alma recounts her childhood, gang initiation, gang life, and life thereafter. The interview frames Alma in medium and close-up shots, ensuring our identification with her, though it also offers cutaways to her tattoos and fidgeting hands. Interestingly enough, that framing hides the fact that Alma is now confined to wheelchair.

Alma’s story is harrowing. Alma explains how the gang offered acceptance, belonging, support, and purpose — things unavailable at home.

One price for that belonging, though, is a life of violence. As part of her initiation, Alma helped members kill a woman whom they had just raped. Another part of her initiation involved the choice between her own rape and being beaten. Alma chose the beating because she didn’t want to appear weak.

Another price for that belonging is a lack of freedom. The gang dictated its lower-ranked members’ activities, which often involved collecting protection fees and killing those who refused or couldn’t pay. Alma killed one person for this reason.

Though not explicitly articulated, a third price for that belonging is fear, particularly of the violence turning back on Alma herself. Alma left without permission for two years, and when she returned, she feared the gang’s retribution. This time, none came — they invited her back in. After becoming pregnant and suffering abusive relationships, Alma requested to leave the gang altogether. They beat her briefly, and she left the meeting thinking the situation fine among them. As she walked away, bullets flew. One struck her and left her paralyzed. The bounty still remains on her head.

While this interview plays, a secondary storyline appears above her. The upper “track,” for lack of a better word, offers a combination of still images, B-roll, archival images, sketches, and animations. Sometimes, the upper track offers a thematic connection to Alma’s recollections, such as the pictures of poor neighborhoods. Other times, the upper track depicts Alma’s recollections, such as the animated illustrations of her gang initiation or of a gang rape. Though nonetheless disturbing, the animations offer ways to show the violence without spectacle.

The Maras module from Alma: A Tale of Violence
The Maras module from Alma: A Tale of Violence
In addition to the video sequence, Alma features four information modules that offer background about Guatemala, maras, violence, and prevention. Each module appears like a slideshow, with images, statistics, and quotes. Some of the images also appear in upper track of Alma’s interview, but overall this part remains separate from it.

The integration of user, navigation, and narrative ensures a cohesive interactive documentary experience. Casting the user in a role helps with this integration. Alma, though, offers no particular role for its users. The directions only tell users how to access the content, which amounts mostly to swiping on the tablet or moving up and down with a mouse and to tapping or clicking on these respective devices.

The navigation in Alma is straightforward and largely similar between the web and iPad versions. The interview with Alma herself allows the expected starting and stopping of the video, as well as scrolling up to see the upper track and scrolling down to see Alma again. Users can choose not to switch between tracks as well. But, other than the up and down, start and pause, no other interactive features appear in the video.

The modules offer even fewer interactive features. An internal table of contents allows skipping through the modules’ information, or users can progress through each one sequentially, slide by slide, with a click or a tap.

While the navigation’s simplicity allows for easy access to all parts of this interactive documentary, its simplicity undermines the interactive documentary’s cohesiveness. The narrative disconnection between the video interview and the information modules also fails to help create a sense of unity. Overall, the interactive options here remain quite limited.

One of the sketches appearing in Alma: A Tale of Violence
One of the sketches appearing in Alma: A Tale of Violence
That said, Alma still tells a powerful story. One thing I greatly appreciated about this interactive documentary was the extended interview. Too often in contemporary documentary participants speak briefly, providing on-point information and focused emotion while revealing little about their character or personality. Alma’s screen time allows her to explain her backstory, her motivations, her fears, and her outcomes. The story proves difficult to tell (and hear, for that matter), and Alma breaks down at certain points. The camera continues rolling, but no voice or editing transition interrupts her thoughts.

Another thing I appreciated was the background information’s separation from Alma’s narrative. Balancing oral storytelling and factual details provides a difficult line to walk, with the facts often interrupting the flow of more personal details. The separation ensures a smoothness to Alma’s extended interview that might not be there otherwise.

A Small Review of Three Tools for Archival Research

During the past year, I started work on a history project that involves extensive archival materials. These materials come from the organization’s paper archives and from news archives through Lexis-Nexis, among other places.

While sorting through the papers and files becomes the first step, subsequent steps involve recording, sorting, and annotating. In going through these steps, I found several apps useful for managing information and workflow.

Please note I am firmly rooted in the Apple ecosystem, so my comments and options are limited to Apple devices and apps. After Windows and Word eating my candidacy exam, two 25-page comprehensive exam questions, two dissertation chapters, and two edited book collection chapters, I avoid that operating system as much as possible.

Recording

After sorting, recording the materials for later inquiry is the next step. I started this recording by taking pictures using an iPhone and its camera, but I quickly learned the flaw in this approach. Shaky hands, small device, and micro details like type all result in blurry images that become difficult to read later.

A better solution came through an iPad app called Scanner Pro from Readdle. The app mimics a scanner, but it does much more than that.

Using the tablet’s back camera, the app scans for the document’s edges and takes a picture either automatically or manually. After the capture appears, you can adjust the edges to include the entire page or just part of the document. You then can add pages to that document or start a new document.

The app offers built-in optical character recognition, which makes coding text later on much easier. The app also saves the documents as .PDFs both on device and to a cloud service. With more than 300 documents to move, I found that cloud syncing very handy.

Sorting

Many types of documents appear in this archive: bills, spreadsheets, editing logs, production memos, letters, faxes, emails, contracts, scripts, hand-written notes and edits, and doodles, just to name a few.

Each document tells its own story, but at the same time, each document becomes part of multiple other stories. A hand-written note on a production memo, for example, might connect with multiple productions, organization philosophy, organization culture, operating procedures, and finances. As part of sorting, I could make multiple copies of the same document and put it in multiple places. But doing so makes future discoveries and connections more difficult in that this kind of preliminary sort is based on a superficial understanding of the document’s story. Further investigation might reveal further nuances.

Tagging provides a better solution to this problem. Tagging allows multiple assignments per document, and tags can be organized into different hierarchies. They also are easy to add and remove as needed.

While MacOS offers an internal tagging system, I sought something more robust, perhaps more intuitive. After reading many reviews (particularly this one), I decided to try DEVONThink Pro. Creating, adding, and deleting tags within DEVONThink Pro is simple, and as the system learns, it can suggest other tags that might be useful. Sorting through tags proves easy — with just a couple clicks, every related document appears in one place.

In a world where a 99-cent app seems too expensive, the nearly $80 price tag on DEVONThink Pro might give you some pause. The makers of this program were smart in offering a generous 150-hour trial. It took me nearly 50 hours to tag all of those documents, but the program’s ease of use quickly proved it worthwhile.

Annotating

While tagging offers a superficial sort, annotating moves toward coding the documents. Coding, I am learning, is a labyrinthine process that requires multiple passes before it even starts to resemble something coherent. Part of that might be due to the complexity of this project, however.

For this first pass, PDF Expert offers a great tool for typing on a laptop or by handwriting on the tablet. A simple interface allows quick changing among tools: highlighting, underlining, typing, and writing. Highlights note the relevant data; underlines highlight particularly juicy bits. (Yes, archival research can reveal “juicy bits.”) Typing and handwriting allow me to add potential categories for each piece of information. Aggregation will require another program and probably another post, though.

Like DEVONThink Pro, PDF Expert comes with a price tag that might make you cringe, but it offers several advantages over Adobe systems and even Notability. One key advantage is that the price tag happens once, while with Adobe that amount covers only four months of a subscription. PDF Expert also works with the cloud subscriptions you already have, unlike Adobe which requires using their cloud. Further, changes made to a document in PDF Expert appear in other programs, unlike Notability which used to keep your notes in their app. Plus, I can work offline if I choose to do so.

Merchandise Extends the ‘Hoop Dreams’ Experience

With every new blockbuster arrives a bevy of branded media, merchandise, and cross-promotions. Soundtracks, television specials, DVDs, and novelizations expand your media collections. Elsa dolls, Batman key chains, and Shrek Twinkies extend your movie experience while they shrink your wallet.

Sometimes, you have to wonder if Hollywood will ever let it go.

Documentaries for the most part fail to fit neatly into these branding machines, but a few exceptions exist. Warner Bros. released a March of the Penguins bonus set with postcards and plush penguin toy. Morgan Spurlock perhaps demonstrates this disconnect most clearly in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, wherein he attempts to solicit funding for the documentary through paid sponsorships. In addition to POM Wonderful, other products and brands include Mane ‘n Tail, Old Navy, Seventh Generation, and Sheetz, a gas station chain familiar to those living in Pennsylvania and nearby states.

While these two titles lean on the lighter side, most documentaries address more serious issues that make further branding ridiculous. A Born into Brothels T-shirt or The Thin Blue Line backpack are inappropriate. (An Errol Morris bobblehead, however, might be a hot commodity.)

Some documentaries offer movie promotion items such as posters, cards, and autographed stills, but rarely more than that.

Hoop Dreams is a tasteful exception. In exploring the film’s history in the Kartemquin archives, I discovered documents that mentioned Hoop Dreams-branded merchandise. T-shirts with the Hoop Dreams brand sold in J.C. Penney’s stores in the mid-1990s, for example. Turner Publishing released a tie-in book by Ben Joravsky, for another example.

Where does one look for these now-vintage items? Why, eBay, of course. Much to my surprise, I found both official merchandise and memorabilia related to the film, its distribution, and its stars, William Gates and Arthur Agee.

Turner Publishing’s book proved the easiest find:

The front of the hardcover edition of Hoop Dreams, by Ben Joravsky.

This branded pencil connects with the distribution through Fine Line and Turner, but it makes no mention of Kartemquin:

Hoop Dreams pencil
A Hoop Dreams pencil with the New Line Home Video and Turner Publishing logos.

Two of the branded T-shirts showed up in the search results. This green one features a player with a basketball head holding an old-school cell phone. The writing reads,

Hoop Dreams official T-shirt
An official Hoop Dreams T-shirt. Check out that original flip phone!

Defense
You can’t do it
Shut me
down?
I toy with your
Existence
Fake left
Fake right
Take you (any which way)
You need
Help
Fool
Time to dial

A small patch reading, “Hoop Dream 911,” appears on the sleeve.

The black T-shirt is more understated with just the Hoop Dreams logo on the front and back.

Hoop Dreams official T-shirt
Another official Hoop Dreams T-shirt, this one with more understated logos.

Both T-shirts bear tiny writing that claims copyright for “Kartemquin Educational Films, Inc.” I wonder if any other documentary production houses can make the same kind of claim.

Memorabilia also appear on eBay. Memorabilia differ from the branded merchandise in that they may not be official, but they still connect with the film in some way. Trading cards for Gates and Agee are the most popular find. But then I came across this T-shirt:

Hoop Dreams commemorative T-shirt
A Hoop Dreams T-shirt commemorating the television broadcast in November 1995. The shirt is signed by both Gates and Agee.

The T-shirt commemorates the Hoop Dreams PBS broadcast on November 15, 1995. On the front a screenprint shows Gates holding a basketball, with below the logos for Chrysler, Kartemquin, PBS, and KTCA, the Twin Cities PBS-affiliate and producing partner. On the back appears a screenprint of Agee, ball in hand, in mid layup.

Two additions make this T-shirt special: signatures from Gates and Agee. Gates wrote, “Hoop Dreams,” while Agree wrote, “#4,” “Hoop Dreams,” and “’95.” I asked the eBay seller if they knew more about the shirt, and the seller said the person who originally had the shirt worked in sports promotions and probably did an event with the film’s broadcast and the two stars.

While Kartemquin and Fine Line no longer offer Hoop Dreams merchandise, Arthur Agee still uses the film’s name for his own company, Classic HD Basketball Clothing Co. The company features autographed Hoop Dreams posters, DVDs, and books, as well as T-shirts and basketball shorts. Part of the proceeds go toward renovating and equipping a basketball court in Chicago so that others can shoot for their own hoop dreams.

‘My Life I Don’t Want’ Tells Story through Girls’ Eyes

My favorite film from last month’s Speechless Film Festival is My Life I Don’t Want, created by Nyan Kyal Say. The appeal of My Life I Don’t Want lies in its simplicity in story and style, though that simplicity also belies much complexity about girls’ experiences in Myanmar and elsewhere.

Title image for My Life I Don't Want
Title image for My Life I Don’t Want

My Life I Don’t Want is a 12-minute animated documentary that represents the collective experiences of girls’ lives in Myanmar through the childhood of a single female child. Her growing up appears as a series of scenes. The series starts with her joyful welcoming into the world and her growing curiosity about school, but it quickly reveals her secondary status.

This status follows a heartbreaking cycle that begins at home and affects her in school and beyond. When the girl and her brother study in one scene, the girl experiences constant interruptions with household chores such as doing laundry and cleaning floors. She is exhausted and unable to concentrate after all of the interruptions, and her school marks suffer. Her brother studies without interruptions and excels in school. Instead of understanding her struggles, her parents express deep disappointment.

The obstacles grow bigger and more dangerous as she ages. She gets kicked out of homes, boys exploit her for sex, and one man even tries to traffic her. In one scene, she attempts to escape the threats, but they all loom menacingly over her as she runs. She ends up pregnant, standing at an edge with the rain pouring down.

Still from My Life I Don't Want
This still from My Life I Don’t Want shows the visual simplicity of the short.

A moment of reckoning, to be sure, but in that, grace appears and offers a hand. For the first time since almost the start of the short, the girl smiles.

The audio and visual styles complement the seemingly straightforward story. In line with the festival’s strong emphasis on visual storytelling, this short uses no specific dialogue. No words are needed.

The animation style also complements the simplicity of the story. Creator Say maintains spare settings with stark backgrounds, such as two desks for the children studying or a bench and tree for the girl meeting a boy. Other elements only appear when necessary to advance the story, such as the girl bringing out a clothes line or a mop and pail during cleaning.

Still from My Life I Don't Want
Another still from My Life I Don’t Want showing the girl in line for starting school.

Recent live-action documentaries show girls’ circumstances around the world. While some films celebrate girls’ cultures and their successes, many films focus on their plights and the challenges they face just to survive. They struggle for education, health care, and economic opportunities, while they fight against forced marriage, childbearing, and prostitution.

These documentaries can prove quite traumatic to view. Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky visits six countries around the world, showing young girls who have been raped, prostituted, molested, and otherwise exploited. In one segment a girl accuses an uncle of rape only later to lose her home because of her family’s shame. That same segment mentions a 3-year-old being raped as well.

It’s a Girl examines gendercide, or the systematic killing of girls simply because they are girls. This documentary visits India with its practice of selective abortions and visits China with its one (now two) child rule. Both of these countries prefer male children, and the documentary shows these preferences’ effects. Girls end up aborted, abandoned, and murdered.

An opening interview in It’s a Girl spikes this point home. An Indian woman speaks matter-of-factly about killing her newborn daughter. She offers no apologies or remorse. And, chillingly, the recent killing is not her first one.

Both It’s a Girl and Half the Sky make for difficult viewing, and they focus on the cultural implications through multiple interviews and stories. My Life I Don’t Want speaks to these broader themes as well.

But what I really like about My Life I Don’t Want is its focus on a single girl’s story told through her point of view. We identify with her, and the story, animation, and the soundscape all point to that identification. The story is still harrowing, but ultimately, it is her story.

Speechless Film Festival Offers Marathon Viewing with 52 Films in 24 hours

Serving as an audience jury member for a film festival makes for quite a different experience from playing octopus at the information booth. I watched 52 films in less than 24 hours during the Speechless Film Festival in Mankato, Minnesota, in mid-March.

A banner with a quote from Alfred Hitchcock
A banner at the Speechless Film Festival reads, “We should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” The quote is from Alfred Hitchcock.
Celebrating its fifth year, the Speechless Film Festival focuses on the art of visual storytelling to connect cultures and transcend genres. A banner quoting Alfred Hitchcock conveys this philosophy: “We should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” Many programmed films relied primarily on the visual to convey their messages with little to no spoken words.

The festival maintains strong educational connections with the local liberal arts college, Bethany Lutheran College. Professors from there, Minnesota State University – Mankato, and South Central College served as organizers and judges. Regional arts and media organizations also were represented among the judges and organizers.

The audience jury was a new feature that the festival organizers wanted to try this year. The idea seems a strategic way to gain more participation from the greater community. I was happy to volunteer and help decide the audience award winners.

Though the program included four feature-length films, short films running between one and 20 minutes dominated the schedule. Films came from countries all around the world: Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, France, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Switzerland. A couple documentaries snuck in there, but almost all films were fictional narrative.

The programmers grouped films thematically into 17 categories. Some themes followed generic lines such as experimental, animation, and fantasy, while other themes consisted of a key idea such as “journey” or “short and sweet.”

My badge and audience jury button from the Speechless Film Festival.
My badge and audience jury button from the Speechless Film Festival.
Serving as an audience jury member required that I attend eight sessions. I chose fantasy, animation, experimental, journey, Minnesota loud, Minnesota quiet, animation (family), and art. My favorites were both animation sessions and the journey one.

Animation, both adult and kids, featured strong storytelling, sometimes stronger than some of the live-action pieces. Some narratives, such as Alto El Juego (Walter Tournier) and Hope (Michael Scherrer), offered both harrowing views and, well, hope even within a short runtimes. Some stories appeared simple, such as meeting a girl in Lion Dance (Tim Pattinson and Zheng Kang) or chasing a seashell and the ocean in Au revoir Balthazar (Rafael Sommerhalder).

In the journey category, RM10 (Emir Ezwan) stood out for its focus on a piece of currency’s trip throughout an evening. The currency travels from vendors to sex workers to children to indebted parents to loan collectors to wealthy debt holders, coming full circle in a surprising way at the end.

The festival recognized films with Minnesota connections in the program book, the awards, and the thematic groupings. The program book labeled regional and local films with an “M” within a blue circle to mark “Made in Minnesota.” This category carried two awards of “Best of Show” and “Honorable Mention.”

According to the program, the “Minnesota Loud” category featured “extreme situations, strong aesthetics, or boisterous characters.” The group I watched this category with enjoyed The Car Pool, a short film by Mike Sorenson. Four people car pool to their jobs at a bank, with the usual annoyances of personality quirks, inane chatter, and indecisive coffee ordering. One twist lies in their jobs at the bank: To rob it. The other twist lies in who survives to take the carpool home.

I also appreciated Bobby’s Run Off, directed by John J. Kaiser. Its central plot involves an abused wife accidentally murdering her husband, though the premise suggests that the husband has disappeared. The film handles this delicate subject in an even way, avoiding the salacious spectacle that sometimes results in representing these stories.

The “Minnesota Quiet” category gathered more “contemplative and highly personal stories.” In their collective subtleness, most of these films failed to stand out for me. I suspect their grouping had something to do with that. Directed by Joe Kessler, Half Smile perhaps stood out the most. Forced to clean out a storage unit, a man confronts his past and his losses.

Interestingly enough, none of these films featured strong Minnesota geographical connections within the films themselves, such as particular cities or regions, or strong Minnesota-based plots or people. The connections to the state occurred with the filmmakers and their production locations instead.

In all, the Speechless Film Festival was quite a different experience from the Frozen River Film Festival, and not just in my minor roles in them. The overall festival was much smaller, confined to one venue, and in general its audience skewed younger. Frozen River involved greater swaths of the community than Speechless did. While Frozen River featured multiple titles about Minnesota, Speechless featured films made in –but not necessarily about — Minnesota. Still, though, serving as an audience jury member for Speechless made for an overall cool experience.

Frozen River Film Festival Maintains Strong Commitment to Regional Identity and Documentary

Picture of a volunteer pass from the Frozen River Film Festival
A volunteer badge from the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota.
My first time volunteering for a film festival introduced me to rural festival culture and helped me perfect my octopus impersonation.

In February 2017, I volunteered for the information desk at the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota. Winona nestles among the bluffs along the Mississippi River. Sugar Loaf, a unique bluff on the National Register of Historic Places, contributes to a mountain town feeling. This rural community of about 27,000 hosts multiple other festivals throughout the year, including the Great River Shakespeare Festival and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival.

Celebrating its 12th year, FRFF programs only documentaries in order to bring global issues to local audiences. The Hunting Ground, Do Not Resist, Life, Animated, and In the Game topped this year’s feature-length documentary offerings. The programmers balance these international documentaries with strong commitments to supporting regional identity and community.

The program cover for the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota
The program cover for the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota
FRFF involves multiple venues throughout the city, including Winona State University, the historical society, the public library, and local businesses. I staffed an information table located in the university’s science building, which also housed two theaters, an open performance space, and food vendors.

That location — not to mention the festival itself — proved a hub of activity. Saturday featured a volunteer fair for area organizations and programs, and local musicians performed both days. Volunteers I sat with named all of the familiar faces they knew from attending the other area festivals.

FRFF recognized both state and local identities with its programming. Five documentaries appeared in the “Minnesota Made” category. For examples, The Seventh Fire examines gang cultures on a Minnesota reservation, while Iraqi Voices breaks down stereotypes through stories of Iraqi people living in the Twin Cities.

Local identities also received attention. One special session included works about two prominent historical figures. Directed by Mary Farrell, The John Latsch Documentary explored the life of this Winona businessman and philanthropist who donated sizable tracts of land for preservation and parks, including one that now bears his name.

The other work-in-progress screening in that session honored Minnesota politician and poet Gene McCarthy. Along with clips, the session included a question-and-answer session with director Bill Kersey, Kelle Green, and Mary Beth Yarrow.

A picture of Sugar Loaf Bluff with a frozen lake in the foreground. An ice fisherman walks to his shelter in the foreground.
A view of Sugar Loaf Bluff in Winona, Minnesota. Despite 50-degree temps, people still fished on the frozen lake as others in shorts jogged around it.
The line for that event started to form about two hours before the doors even opened. Many people brought individual tickets just for that event. The room reached capacity quickly, and ushers turned many people away. Individual ticket-holders turned away received refunds, fortunately.

Working the information booth provides much opportunity to observe happenings such as these. It also involves a lot of pointing as part of answering questions about where to find venues, food, bathrooms, audience voting, and festival personnel. All that pointing in all of those directions makes you feel like an octopus after a while. In all, it was a great experience.

And despite the 50-degree weather that weekend, people still fished on the frozen lake while others jogged around it in shorts. Aside from FRFF, I don’t think you can get much more Minnesota than that.

The Stories Documentary Archives Tell

While watching old documentaries provides an interesting look into nonfiction film history, sometimes the coolest discoveries lurk in dusty cardboard filing boxes.

This summer I enjoyed the opportunity to delve into Kartemquin Films‘ archives. Kartemquin has been busy making documentaries for more than 50 years, and with three new titles so far in 2016 alone, they show no signs of slowing down. I came away from my explorations thinking documentary work should be measured in reams of paper, not in shooting-to-editing ratios.

Digging through archives offers the adventure of exploring familiar trees rooted in unfamiliar woods. Some documents are to be expected in the course of operations: fundraising strategies, grant applications, acceptance and rejection letters, budgets, contracts, meeting agendas, consent forms, licensing agreements, legal correspondence, strategy memos, press releases, and marketing materials. At a University of Chicago speaking engagement in June, Kartemquin co-founder and current artistic director Gordon Quinn joked about keeping everything — but I’m not entirely sure he was kidding.

Materials from my initial inquiries ranged about 1985-2002, covering films such as Golub (1988), Hoop Dreams (1994), Vietnam Long Time Coming (1998), Stevie (2002), and Refrigerator Mothers (2002), along with a smattering of other films’ materials and external marketing materials. After 200 pages of notes so far, I feel I am only beginning to scratch the surface, but I have learned some interesting things about archival research, documentary history, and Kartemquin Films.

Archives represent living history. They hold mysteries about the past just as they reveal something about the present. A document appearing within an archive is never neutral. It is as much about the text on the page as it is about the contexts surrounding it. A document may have an official purpose, or it might be something much more personal. Either way, each document tells a story or two of its own while contributing to the larger narrative.

But these documents often tell incomplete stories, much like reality. For example, I found page 1 of what looked like an incredible manifesto, complete with — and perhaps not surprisingly — an opening quote from John Dewey, but there was no page 2. Another letter reached out to Frank Zappa possibly to participate in a documentary series about art, but did Zappa reply? The archives remained mum.

Some of the more interesting documents reveal the complex relationships that develop during a film’s production and continue after a film’s release. Editing questions, for example, can become intense during the production process. They cover so many possibilities: whom to include, whom to exclude, what details to include, what details to exclude, how often to appear, and how to frame all of them. And, of course, disagreements abound on every one of those questions.

Another complex relationship emerges with participants and consent agreements. Consent is nowhere near as simple as a signed piece of paper. It is a fluctuating relationship that continues and evolves even after a documentary’s release. Some participants write to express support for the films and the issues they address, while others write to express how upset they are about their representations. For example, the uplifting sports and veterans story Vietnam, Long Time Coming drew much praise, while the highly complex Stevie drew more mixed responses.

The most complex relationships I found among all that paperwork involved distribution deals. Distribution contracts represent a long-term relationship with terms dictated by all parties involved. Of course, some parties hold more power than others, and it was interesting to see each party advocating for its own interests and values, particularly with Hoop Dreams.

With paperwork comes handwriting: elaborate doodles, scribbled questions, penciled budgets, and scrawled memos. Some comments revealed some deep thinking about the issues at hand, while others showed touching connections developed during productions. One list appearing on yellow notepad paper, for example, features several books that might be good for the Vietnamese girls they met while filming Vietnam, Long Time Coming. Titles included The Secret Garden, The Hobbit, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Education of Little Tree. One memo even featured a sketch of a station wagon. Many comments showed a deep sense of humor — something necessary in the face of struggles related to raising funds, completing projects, and finding distributors.

Old school physical media storage lurked in multiple folders. In the Vietnam, Long Time Coming box I discovered projection slides and 3 1/2-inch hard disks. In the Hoop Dreams folders I found another 3 1/2-inch disk with a script on it. Other boxes held 5 1/4-inch floppy disks and even cassette tapes. While I had no devices to access the content on these media, I still feel something is being lost as everything now is transitioning to digital.

Not all the history buried in those archives is related specifically to Kartemquin, but it did connect with the documentary community at the time. One series of folders contained flyers from other documentary production and distribution companies. Some still operate today, such as New Day Films, California Newsreel, AppalShop, and Zipporah films, but others I had not heard of, such as Greenwich Film Associates, Documentary Associates Inc., Film Images, Cine Manifest, Public Interest Video Network, and Red Ball Films. Many of these companies were based in California or the New York City metro area, but interestingly enough others had addresses in Colorado, Washington state, and Ohio. I do wonder what became of them and their archives. What were their stories? How and why did they end?

Going through these boxes made me feel like I was standing on a two-foot slab of ice jutting out of the Arctic Ocean. I was only seeing the surface when so much, much more remains to be discovered underneath the water.

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.

A Simple Question Belies Depths in ‘The Jinx’

Sometimes an interview question seems so simple that it belies the cultural depths that inform it.

A question like this appears in Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx: The Life and Murders of Robert Durst (2015). This six-episode HBO series retraces the unsolved murders linked to Durst through archival footage, reenactments, and interviews, including with Durst himself. Throughout the episodes, Jarecki asks questions from off camera in order to move the inquiry along.

The second chapter, titled “Poor Little Rich Boy,” addresses the traumas of Durst’s childhood and the disappearance of his first wife, Kathie. According to the “official” story, Kathie took the train back to New York City, arrived at her apartment around 11:30 p.m., called Robert to let him know she was there, and called her medical school to report her absence the next day. After that last call, she disappeared. After a few days, Durst filed a missing persons report. Kathie’s friends, however, believed that Durst killed her, and they undertook their own investigation into the situation.

Part of Jarecki’s revelations include details about Kathie’s dealing with abuse that escalated during their marriage. It included hitting, kicking, shoving, a forced abortion, and monitoring that required Kathie check in with Robert via telephone wherever she went. Her friends recounted Kathie’s fears over Robert’s potential anger. Kathie also had filed for divorce, but Robert had refused.

The question comes in an interview with Kathie’s friend Geraldine McInerney. With the documentary’s uncovering of these abusive behaviors, they had become the elephant in the room. Jarecki asks, “Why didn’t she leave?”

McInerney pauses for a moment and then replies, “I don’t know. I think she was afraid of him.”

While the question fits the context of the series, it also points to the myths surrounding domestic violence. Groups such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Domestic Abuse Project offer information that counter these myths. A hashtag campaign, #whyIstayed, also raises awareness.

Several reasons exist for why people stay in domestic violence situations. Some survivors remain unaware of options available to help them. They face cultural, religious, and familial pressures. Emotional issues such as low self-esteem and depression entrap them. Some abuses they endure ensure they cannot leave, such as tight control of finances, transportation, social activities, and communications. Many stay because of their children.

Leaving can pose more dangers to the person’s safety than remaining in the abusive relationship. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, someone who leaves an abusive relationship is 75 percent more likely to experience separation violence or even be murdered by the partner.

Jarecki’s investigation into Kathie’s relationship with Robert uncovers parallels these issues. The physical altercations increased over time. Robert monitored her movements, such as his calling during the party at her friend’s house the night she disappeared. Kathie’s friend recalls her being rattled by those calls. Another friend questioned why Kathie had to call and check in with Robert when she out.

A tougher decision becomes another example. Kathie got pregnant in the late 1970s, and Robert offered her the choice of the abortion or divorce. In his interview with Jarecki, Durst claimed that he was jinxed and didn’t want children. We have no insight into Kathie’s thoughts.

The police response to her disappearance also suggests the legal issues that might arise in domestic violence situations. Those who claim abuse sometimes struggle with police believing their stories and their seriousness. In the series the police do ask about the state of the marriage, but they figure she left of her own free will. Even with Kathie’s friends telling them about the situation, the original detectives make no further investigation in his disappearance and close the case as a missing persons file, not a murder.

The divorce filing, which had happened three days before, might have been the final straw as it represented a move to freedom and thus posed a threat to Robert’s control over her.

These comments here are not to say that Jarecki’s posing of the question furthers the myths of women staying in domestic violence situations. The question fits the context of the film, and it is a question many viewers might have had. What’s better, though, is how the film answers the question through its investigation into Kathie’s relationship with Durst and the points it raises about that relationship.

Constructing Conversations about Race in ‘Trick Bag’

Kartemquin Films’ Trick Bag: A Black and White Film tackles a tough subject: race issues in 1970s Chicago.

Their 1974 short film shows a series of interviews among people across Chicago during the early 1970s. These people, mostly youth, gather at parks, on street corners, and in people’s homes. Race issues dominate these interviews, though intersectionalities with class -— a theme across Kartemquin’s catalogue -— also appear. Brief sequences of well-chosen music and some voiceover comments set up each scene and its key idea.

Unlike the usual lone talking head, this short approaches these interviews as conversations. In a kitchen, for example, several men sit and talk about their experiences while serving in Vietnam. Each of the men, who remain unidentified, share comments and anecdotes about what they went through there. An African-American man talks about how he had time served and rank and yet white men still got promoted over him. A white man shares his story about being harassed by a higher-up. While the camera cuts from speaker to speaker, we also see and hear some reactions from the others in the room, such as a reaction shot of a man nodding or a two-shot with another man laughing.

Other scenes offer more insights into the interactions among the people talking. One girl early in the film talks about bringing an African-American woman to her apartment before attending a show, and the landlord calls and tells her to have the woman leave immediately. The girl refuses to remove her friend, and the landlord gives them a 30-day eviction notice. As she talks, several people laugh almost nervously, making her smile as she talks though the man framed in the shot with her listens intently without much facial expression.

A conversation outside a Schwinn bicycle factory shows the most exchange among the speakers. Some start the comments, and others chime in to agree. Still others raise different points to the conversation. Shots show some people talking and other people listening, such as an African-American man talking and a white man listening.

While the sequences are set up as conversations with multiple people present, the editing still focuses on one speaker at a time for the most part. The conversation approach complements the discussions about race and class within the film in that it sets up a flow of honest, direct exchange. No sugarcoating happens here; the problems are clearly stated. One man says, “They say there’s a race problem between blacks and whites. It’s not really as much a race problem so much as it is a class problem.” After talking about the differing treatment of African-American and white factory workers, another man says, “You know who really gets [deleted]? Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.”

The comment that most stuck with me was this one: “We’re losing like 5-6 dudes a year.” That’s a sobering comparison to the number lost each day in Chicago. It would be interesting to hear what these conversations sound like today.