Gordon Quinn: Man With a Movie Camera

The veteran documentarian looks back over 45 years of filmmaking, and finds change to be the crucial constant.

David Moberg

A Kartemquin work in progress (left to right): violence interrupter Ameena Matthews, a central figure in <i>The Interrupters</i> (2011); Kartemquin producer/director Steve James; producer Alex Kotlowitz; co-producer/sound recordist Zak Piper. (Photo by Aaron Wickenden/courtesy of <a href=http://interrupters.kartemquin.com/press>Kartemquin Films</a>)

In this, its 45th year, Kartemquin Films released two feature documentaries: A Good Man, about choreographer Bill T. Jones creating a dance/​theater piece about Abraham Lincoln, and The Interrupters, which follows a group by that name as it tries to interrupt cycles of violence in poor Chicago neighborhoods. They’re both unlike the more simple, raw films of the group’s early years, when cinema verité met the New Left and found they liked each other. 

But there’s a direct, if interrupted,” lineage, politically and esthetically, connecting this year’s more polished storytelling with its youthful commitment and energy. I recently met with one of the group’s founders, Gordon Quinn — who has conceived, produced and directed countless films with various collaborators over the last five decades — to talk about that history.

DM: You’ve told the story a million times, but tell me a bit about how Kartemquin started at the University of Chicago.

It began with three guys who were students: [Stan] Karter, Jerry Temaner, and [Gordon] Quinn. Thus the name, which we thought sounded like Potemkin” [a reference to Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 classic about a ship mutiny with revolutionary aspirations]. You know, Potemkin, Kartemquin – a terrible idea that has been a handicap for 45 years. No one can pronounce it. 

Karter left early on, and we were soon joined by Jerry Blumenthal, who has been with Kartemquin up until a few years ago. We did a lot of films together through the collective period and the different transitions of Kartemquin. But we started off as a little company that had this vision – we were very taken with Cinema Verité –recording reality as it unfolded before the camera. We really had this feeling that if you just reflected reality back to society that would be a force for social change. 

It was the 60s, and we were becoming more politicized. We had a seminar at Kartemquin with Howard Becker, a well-known sociologist, called Cinematic Social Inquiry.” Out of that came Home for Life, and our first series of films.

But we began to see the limitation of just having society reflected back on itself. One of the things we hadn’t quite thought through were the power relationships. You had to understand who had the power and who didn’t, and if you reflected back on society to see how things could be better, you also had to figure out where you going to get the power to make that happen. 

I learned my technical skills through apprenticeship to Mike Shea, an old Life photographer who was getting into the Cinema Verité approach to things. He brought the first verité camera to Chicago from New York, from the same people who were making cameras for Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. He came back with this $20,000 camera that was crystal controlled and silent, would work with no wire between the camera man and the sound man, and left you free to move around as just the two of you make the movie. 

DM: Tell me about Camera 1

The kind of camera we wanted was what Mike Shay had, but that was way out of our price range. There was no way we could have afforded that. But we could afford a General Camera 2 version, which we got for about $2,000. And a friend of mine who was a physics major at the University of Chicago built a modification that was so far ahead of its time, similar to what Shay had, and it worked for years. So we had the second crystal camera in Chicago, and no one else had anything like that. So that was cool and very exciting. 

DM: How much do you think that technology affected the style that you developed?

What that meant was you had a two-person crew that could move around, spend time with people, go where they were going. You could put down the camera and just be a human being, talking to another person, to establish a relationship. 

DM: What did you learn about telling stories, about getting people to trust you? 

What I was passionate about, what we were all passionate about, was how do you understand the consequences of social policies on people’s lives? So what is it that makes a good story, what is it that makes a story emotional? Those were things I learned studying the liberal arts, studying technology. 

One of the most important hallmarks of Kartemquin is that we don’t keep making the same film. You look at Ken Burn’s work, and stylistically it is the same narrator, it’s the same music, more or less…it’s the same. The talking heads are interwoven, extremely well, the craftsmanship is brilliant, but every presentation is the same. But Kartemquin ranges over everything from pure Verité, no narration, and if we do anything to stimulate or change the situation, we go so far as to let the audience know that. 

But we evolved: history changes, the times change, the political context that you’re living in changes, so Kartemquin projects change. A lot of people were coming to Kartemquin from film, but some were union organizers, teachers and other kinds of activists, many working with organizations such as Rising Up Angry and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. So we started to make films that were part of their struggles, useful to people in these organizations. So, some of our films became more like agitprop, advocacy pieces. 

Other films start off in a verité mode, such as The Chicago Maternity Center and The Last Pullman Car. Both started with people waging a struggle to save an institution, but as we saw that these struggles were going to fail, we realized that we really need an analysis, that people waging these struggles in the future need to know what they’re up against. So the films have a lot of narration. There are long sections of materials to tell a much larger analytical story. 

Some of these began to get on public television. They were much different from our earlier work. Then we evolved into a collective. At most there were 16 people here. We had many other things we were doing besides making films. For instance, we were very committed to skill-sharing, to breaking women into more skilled fields. And we were reading Mao and Marx. You know, it was the 60s. And you can see that in our films, you see it being a reflection of that. 

DM: Does anything besides The Last Pullman Car exemplify that? 

Trickbag, from that period, is a short film that was made for people who were organizing with gang kids. It’s interesting if you think about it in relationship to The Interrupters [a new Kartemquin film in theaters now, scheduled for PBS’s Frontline next year]. The Interrupters is about what the interrupters” do [in an organization called Ceasefire], and we follow them around. It’s very emotional, and it’s talking to an national audience. 

Trickbag is a short film, made for an organization that was trying to get gang kids to stop fighting with each other and to do more socially positive things. It’s a film to be used by the people in that line of work: they show it to the kids to trigger discussion. So it had a lot of popular music in it. It was made in a style that’s much more raggedy and has a street feel to it. And it’s a very different kind of film than The Interrupters because its purpose was different. 

There have been three periods of Kartemquin, and this is the second period, from 1968 or 1969 to near the end of the 70s.

DM: During this period, how would you have contrasted yourself with Newsreel? 

Chicago Newsreel and what was called California Newsreel – all three of us were in contact with each other. We once had a meeting here with all three of us getting together and having a kind of national meeting of these kind of progressive [documentary filmmakers]. We saw Newsreel as a sister organization. And there were similarities in terms of how we were organized. We called ourselves a collective, but we actually weren’t a financial collective. 

DM: So, might it be fair to sort of make a twist on Marx and say that in your first period, you were trying to reflect the world, and in your second, you were trying to change it?

Yeah. We felt that you had to do more than just hold a mirror up to it. You had to get engaged with people who were trying to make social change on the ground. And that was our strategy for the second period of Kartemquin. Most of our major films were done either in conjunction with the women’s movement, activists who were working around poor people issues or street gang issues, or unions – we were very into labor. …

DM: That in a way sets you apart from a lot of the New Left that, at that point, was still very suspicious of the unions. How did you connect with the unions?

In two ways. One: we were working with some of these New Left groups, who were within unions as rank-and-file caucuses, and that kind of thing, challenging the old, established unions. Some of those people were our initial contacts that resulted in the first Taylor Chain film. And if you look at that film, you see that the staff guy from the United Steelworkers of America, who we see as a stuffed shirt and as a union bureaucrat. 

When he saw the film, he said to us, I know what you think of me. You think I’m a stuffed shirt. You have a lot to learn. But your movie is honest. You’re always concerned about portraying people honestly. Your movie is honest, and I’m gonna help you get it to the Steelworkers and get it seen.” 

This is a great story, really, this guy was John Bierman. And ten years later, when we made Taylor Chain II, we had a very different view of him. We had learned a lot. But he took us to Pittsburgh, we showed the movie to Lynn Williams, who later became the president of the Steelworkers. 

You know, I’m a kid, I’m like 24 years old or something, but our pitch was: Look, this is a pro-labor movie. There’s more democracy going on in this film than you can ever see going on in America. And you have a problem in the union movement. Everyone thinks that there are all these deals being made in the back room, that you’re a bunch of bureaucrats and sell-outs, and here’s the rank and file rising up, shouting down the staff man, shouting down even their own elected leadership, and, you know, a vote being taken, and arguments about whether it should have been an open vote or a closed vote. 

And, I said, this is the stuff of democracy. What I want is your endorsement. I want your endorsement of this movie because that will make it be seen as a pro-labor movie. If you come out against this movie, that will be the lead of every review – that this is the film that reveals the dirty linen of the labor movement. Embrace it and be proud of it, and the reviews will be pro-labor. And, amazingly enough, they bought it, they got behind the movie. Bierman was an enormous help. He said, you know, I want people to know what my life is like. And you guys showed what my life is like. I think it’s important. 

We weren’t ultra-leftists who say, We’ll have nothing to do with the mainstream labor movement.” We think labor’s important. And we worked with, in a sense, both sides. We’re not going to grind political axes. We’re going to tell the story as it unfolds. 

'One of the most important hallmarks of Kartemquin is that we don't keep making the same film. You look at Ken Burn's work, and stylistically it is the same narrator, it's the same music, more or less...it's the same.'

DM: So, the third period …

At the end of 70s, things are changing, the movement was changing – and the collective sort of fell apart. Jerry and I were doing some films for labor unions, nuts and bolts organizing films. 

New people started coming to Kartemquin. Younger people. And, basically, the guys who made Hoop Dreams walked in with a little grant from the Illinois Arts Council, which told me they could at least write a proposal. They had this idea for a film about basketball, and that was Steve James and Fred Marx, and they were soon joined by Fred Gilbert, who was already associated with Kartemquin. 

Hoop Dreams is a very emotional, powerful film. It really changed our thinking, because he saw what we should be doing – not what everyone should be doing. The tremendous impact of Hoop Dreams is that it went back to my earliest ideas. Because it drew people in emotionally, it enabled people who aren’t sympathetic to you, people who would never watch a film about inner city” families, or welfare families, would watch Hoop Dreams because it was about sports. And they spent almost three hours with those families. And we saw the potential to create work for a national audience that began to open people up to thinking about things differently, to thinking about people differently. 

The New Americans was an example that was much more conscious. After Hoop Dreams we were asking what are we going to do next to cash in on the Hoop Dreams cachet. Immigration was an idea that was heating up, and so we said, well, let’s do something about immigration that puts those families, and their human stories, and their hopes and dreams in an emotional way before the American public. Let’s draw people in to experience what immigrant families experience. 

People could post comments on our website, and there were anti-immigrant comments, but one of my favorite kind of comments came from people who were saying, I see what you people are up to. You have an agenda. You want me to see that these immigrant families are like me and they have hopes and dreams for their kids, and you want me to feel something for them, and I sorta did, and I resent it.” 

With that we began to see that with our level of filmmaking, and our storytelling power, we had an ability to reach beyond the choir, to reach people who were in the middle trying to figure things out on a very human and basic level. 

All of our films began to move in that direction. Hoop Dreams was really the beginning of that, and films like In the Family, Five Girls, and Milking a Rhino, even our stem cell film had elements of that. There were people who wanted us to make the perfect film to take to Congress, the eight-minute piece that kind of lays out the arguments. 

An important aspect of the film Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita was this father and daughter, the stem cell scientist with the daughter in the wheelchair, and that was the human-interest story. The other theme in the film was what stem cell research is: the actual science of it, what the researchers do, the hours and hours spent in the lab and the investment that they have as human beings in what they are doing. 

We got a lot of pushback from people, including the broadcasters, saying, get rid of all that science, because nobody’s interested in that. They really wanted us to focus on the human interest story, and we just insisted that the film is going to do both. I think it’s a much more successful film, because people who watch that film come away with it, they learn something about the nature of science, and they learn something about the investment that scientists have in pursuing an idea. 

DM: Talk a little bit about both where you see Kartemquin going form here, but also about the documentary film world, which seems to have expanded enormously in recent years. What do you think about people like Michael Moore?

I think we’ve done some important things as an institution, and one of the reasons Kartemquin has survived for so long is that we keep changing. I’m basically someone who believes in dialectics. I believe that you don’t remain the same, you need to evolve. Forces come together and something new comes out of it. So we started as a little company with three guys, we evolved into a collective with 13 people, and now we’re a not-for-profit with a real board. … Things are much more rationalized than they were. We have all these programs. Our intern program is incredibly robust, and we have from four to five interns every semester.

Once a month, people can bring a work in progress and get it critiqued by me and the editors here – kind of like, the Kartemquin brain will critique their work in progress. Now there is a big waiting list for it. 

We are still in the third phase, but I think we could change again. We are trying some new ideas. We are very engaged in social media, half of which we don’t even know what we are doing. It’s important to change with the times. 

I think some of our core values remain. One of the things that I think is very important to us is that we care about the people that we make films about. So we don’t make exposé films. If you are going to spend years making a film about somebody, they do not necessarily have to be angels, but you should find some way to care about them, some way to like them. Stevie is a film about someone who is very hard to like. We never set out to make a film about a child molester. It just happened while making the film, and Stevie goes to prison, but we want you to care about him. At the same time, we want you to make him accountable, we want the audience to confront that contradiction. You can care about this guy but hold him accountable for what he did at the same time. That is a core value that we look for. 

I have had meetings many, many times with people who had a project. I try to get them to see that they need to re-think what they are doing a little bit and re-frame their approach to find a way to respect the characters that are at the center of their story. 

It was popular in the past to look down your nose at people. Michael Moore does a lot of it. I love Michael Moore, I go to his movies, but we don’t make films like that, even if I think that his films are important. 

DM: What do you think of documentaries like Inside Job or The Corporation?

I watched Inside Job, and that’s an important film, but we have a very different approach. We want to start at Marquette Park, a community [in Chicago] that has gone through a lot of changes that everybody know about. There were marches there [against racism], there were riots there. Foundations over the year have poured all sorts of money into Marquette Park. It’s a working-class neighborhood, and we had characters in that neighborhood who were affected by this financial crisis. Not the ones you might think of. 

Yes, we were going to do the one that is losing his home, but we were looking at community institutions like a school with a Hispanic principal who had turned the school around. Things were happening, the school was moving in the right direction, but she says, This mortgage crisis is devastating me.” …

We were going to start at the bottom, with the consequences of this crisis in people’s lives, and then look up, follow the story up toward the top. But I thought that Inside Job was a good movie, and I wished that it would have gotten more traction than it did. 

I don’t think there should be one type of documentary. I think this is a great period for documentary, including YouTube, and all kinds of young people putting stuff up on the Internet that they just made a week ago .We see it in the Arab spring and things like Occupy Chicago. They are using all kinds of new technology. All of that is really exciting, so I would never suggest that everybody should be doing what we are doing. There needs to be lots of different types of documentaries and lots of different type of media that affect things in a lot of different ways. It can all be done for a good purpose.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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