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Gordon Quinn Reflects on Five Decades of Changing Hearts and Minds

By Peter Kurie

2015 IDA Career Achievement Award honoree Gordon Quinn

Gordon Quinn co-founded Kartemquin Films, 50 years ago, in the crucible that was the 1960s, when movements and activism proliferated across the country and independent mediamaking was taking hold as a force for social change. From their home base in Chicago, Quinn and his colleagues found the stories that informed their mission. Over the next several decades, Quinn oversaw a trove of work that evolved from agitprop cinema to a rich canon of stories that reached wider audiences with their humanism and deep emotional resonance. Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, The Trials of Muhammed Ali: These are a few of the scores of titles that have provoked viewers into a deeper consideration of issues such as race, class and poverty.

But it's not just about the films with Quinn; it's about making a difference with the underserved communities in Chicago with programs like Diverse Voices in Docs and KTQ Labs. On a national scale, it's been about playing an integral role in developing best practices for fair use, in launching ITVS, and in forming the Indie Caucus to ensure diversity and independence in public television.

We spoke with Quinn by phone about the early days of Kartemquin, the impact of Hoop Dreams, and the importance of his humanities education in informing his filmmaking career.


On December 5, you'll receive the IDA's Career Achievement Award, in recognition of five decades of work as a filmmaker, producer and leader in the documentary community. When did you begin to think of documentary film as a career?

I got interested in documentary when I was still in college. I went to the University of Chicago, where there were no film courses, but there was a very active film club called the Documentary Film Group. I saw a film called Happy Mother's Day, by Ricky Leacock and Joyce Chopra. As soon as I saw that, I knew that's what I wanted to do, and I started paying more and more attention to documentaries. While I was still in college, friends and I would joke about starting a documentary film company someday. We'd call it Kartemquin—kind of like Potemkin, the famous Russian film. That's where the name came from.

So, I got interested early on. I studied the humanities, the liberal arts, which was really a great background for what I actually do because I use that every day, whereas the technology is all completely different from the 16mm film I started with. I started working even when I was still in college for people who were making industrial films—doing something where I could start to learn the craft.


Take us back to 1965 and your first film, Home for Life, about two elderly people in their first month at a nursing home. What was it about making a documentary, rather than a narrative film, that appealed to you?

Well, my interest in narrative films is what got me interested in film in the first place. But what I began to see with documentaries—particularly vérité and direct cinema—was the detail in the image, which was the detail of real life. As you started to structure something out of that detail, there were layers and layers of meaning. Some people would see things that maybe the filmmaker didn't even see in those kinds of films. That's what really excited me.

Years later, I shot for a while on a feature film. The creative challenges were really intense and I was into it. But at the same time, the culture of feature filmmaking is the culture of feature filmmaking. With a documentary, you're in a different culture for almost every film; you're in the world of medicine or a hospital or an old-age home or a dance troupe. Documentary takes you into all kinds of different things that you have to try to make sense of. And I really like that experience. I like that experience of, on a very deep level, trying to make sense of where I am and what I'm looking at.

From 'Home for Life.' Courtesy of Kartemquin Films.

After Home for Life, you went on to direct or produce over 50 films and collaborate with some superb documentary filmmakers. In your experience, what makes a great documentary filmmaker?

There are different kinds of documentaries and different kinds of documentary filmmakers. I love going to Michael Moore's movies. [After watching a Moore film] I often say, "I needed that." But I don't make films like Michael Moore. What I look for in the filmmakers I work with is someone who goes into a situation and is open to seeing what happens, rather than coming in with a story that they're going to tell. They go into the situation. They know there's something going on there. They may have started with an idea or they may think that this is where the story should go, but they're always willing to make the turn and go where the characters in the story actually lead them. And that's what I like about the process. You never quite know where you're going to end up.


Since its founding in Chicago in 1966, Kartemquin has become renowned for films focused on social justice and democracy. What does documentary film have to do with democracy?

One of the things that's important in democracy is voice— a variety of voices. Kartemquin's earliest films were vérité, direct cinema. We thought if we held a mirror up to the world, like we did in Home for Life, it would be enough to create social change. Well, it turns out we were wrong about that. Even though that film was quite successful, it was basically used by homes for the aged to improve how they treated their residents—as opposed to a film that started a national conversation about how we treat the elderly in general and where they fit in in our society.

As we moved on through the '60s, we became more and more connected with the labor movement, with the Women's Liberation Union, both of which were very much represented within Kartemquin. We began to think about power relationships. If you look at our films like The Last Pullman Car, The Chicago Maternity Center Story, Trick Bag— these were sort of agitprop films, and they were very much focused on power relationships. The problem for "the movement," as we used to talk about it, and the problem for "movement filmmakers" was always, How do you talk to people who aren't already sympathetic to your issue and to the kind of people portrayed in your film? After the fervor of the late '60s and '70s, the Kartemquin collective dissipated and we started thinking about new ways to engage with the democratic process. One of the things that a democracy needs is to find a way to create stories that can help different parts of a population understand each other, understand where people are coming from, what they're living with, that kind of thing.

When we did Hoop Dreams with Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert—that film reached a huge audience, both in theaters and on TV. And it reached a lot of people who never would have watched a film about a social issue. They never would have watched a film about "inner-city people." But they watched Hoop Dreams because it was about coming of age; it was about basketball and sports and family life. And what we saw was that we were really good at doing something that was very hard to do, which is to reach those kinds of audiences. Since then, our films have tended to be more emotional, less analytical—taking us back to our roots in vérité storytelling, to draw people in on an emotional level. If you get people emotionally connected to your story, then you have the chance of opening them up a little bit, getting them to pay attention to somebody who maybe doesn't look like them, or someone they think they're not sympathetic with.

From 'Hoop Dreams.' Courtesy of Kartemquin Films.

Hoop Dreams is arguably the most celebrated documentary of our time. What accounts for its magic?

What made Hoop Dreams so effective, I think, is that it was dealing with some of our fundamental American issues of race and exclusion and inequality. But it was doing it by looking at universal themes of coming of age, of the drama of winning and losing and the power of family and people overcoming adversity.

We had a terrible time raising money for Hoop Dreams. Nobody understood it. At one point, Steve was in Washington talking to somebody at PBS. This person said, "Well, if something bad happens to one of those boys, then I think you have a film." His comment was totally chilling, totally cynical—and wrong. What made Hoop Dreams an enormous success is it tells a story that says, With all of America's problems, maybe we have a chance to become more just. These families and these boys do overcome in a certain kind of way. They do get somewhere. They do persevere. And I think that that's what made the film such a success. It said to America, At least there's some hope.


Beyond your work as a director and producer, you've taken on a leadership role, advocating for filmmakers' rights and helping to introduce best practices around fair use. Do you think of documentary film as a profession, and filmmakers as a professional community?

I'm not quite sure what a profession is, but I've done it for over 50 years so I guess that's a profession. It's what I've devoted my life to. Recently I gave a commencement address at Columbia College to the media graduates. The main point of my address was, You're going to go out into this field of making media and you have a responsibility to try and make that field what you want it to be—to realize the vision you have for it. And the way to do that is to join the organizations that represent your field. Join the IDA. Join the IFP. If it's appropriate for you, join the unions or the guilds. Get involved in the organizations that represent your field and get involved in that process—because you can change it and you can make a difference. It's good for people when they get into a field to look at the field that they're in and not just say, "Oh this is the way it is," but to understand that you can play a role in trying to change it and make it a better field.


What's the biggest challenge facing the field today?

I think because of the way everything's going, everything's being privatized and turned into things that serve the marketplace. In a democracy, it's incredibly important that you have some part of things that is public. Public schools are important. Public media is important. And we're going to have some real battles in our field to maintain the sense of a public media that feels accountable to the public.

You can go to public television and you can say, "Your programming is not diverse enough." And they've got to respond. You can go to a private broadcaster and you can shame them into making a change, but that's a very different kind of thing. I think that's where we're going to have to maintain some kind of place for public media moving forward.


Will you look into the crystal ball for us and imagine the future of documentary—the kinds of docs we'll be watching 20 or even 50 years from now?

I've seen a lot of changes in technology. And I don't know where we'll be in 20 years or 50 years from now in terms of technology. But what I think is really important, what I hope is still there in the future, is that documentaries are telling stories that move you emotionally. I don't care about 4K or 3D. What I care about is that I choke up. Did it move me? Did it make me feel about something that I hadn't felt before? And to see something from a different perspective.

I was talking at the beginning about my roots at the University of Chicago. I studied literature and I studied philosophy. Kartemquin's founding principle really came from the American philosopher John Dewey. It's what I wrote my BA paper about. It was called "Cinema Vérité in a Democracy," and the key phrase in it was from Dewey: "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." So, it's not the technology. It's not the spectacle that's important. What's important is, What did it make you feel? That's what I hope we're going to be seeing. That's what I hope we'll continue to have in documentaries—the core value of telling a story that moves people's hearts.


Peter Kurie, PhD, is a film and television consultant based in Los Angeles. He may be reached at pkurie [at] princeton [dot] edu.