Documenting Social Justice

Article excerpt

As he approached the podium on the stage of the funkily charming Metro club in Chicago in midSeptember, filmmaker Gordon Quinn pulled out a well-thumbed book. "I want to read you what inspired us to start Kartemquin Films," he said. " '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.' "

Kartemquin, which Quinn started with two other young idealistic University of Chicago graduates in 1966, has become a legendary source of social-issue documentaries, including Hoop Dreams, The New Americans series on public TV, and, most recently, The Interrupters. Since 1966, Kartemquin has made documentary films introducing people to realities they hadn't imagined and triggering conversations about how to live together in a democracy.

The quote Quinn read at Kartemquin's 45th anniversary celebration was by the great American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who brought us progressive education before it was depoliticized, who worked with Jane Addams at Hull-House and who argued that democracy's lifeblood is conversation between people who don't already agree.

It wasn't the first time I had heard that quote. When I became culture editor at In These Times in 1978, Quinn made a point to drop by the office and argue that our cultural coverage should be informed by Dewey's perspective. He argued that we should not only cover cultural expression, but take a hard look at the organizations and policies that enable and limit its function in a democracy.

I recently agreed to serve on Kartemquin's board of directors because I think Kartemquin Films is a remarkable American institution. It has become a center of cultural gravity- a site to encourage social inquiry, to nurture talent and to push for policies that strengthen our democracy. And it's reaching millions of people in theaters, living rooms, schools and organizing settings.

The company was created just as cinéma vérité burst onto the scene. Inspired by the pioneering work of Richard Leacock, the Mayles brothers and the National Film Board of Canada's social-documentary work, Quinn and his colleagues wanted to conduct what they called Cinematic Social Inquiry. But they soon found that just making a film wasn't enough. Dissatisfied with the lukewarm social action provoked by their initial work in the 1960s, they sought out more activist approaches.

In the 1970s, Kartemquin evolved into a collective enterprise marked by the rise of feminism. Women and men coming from groups like working-class organizations Rising Up Angry and Chicago Women's Liberation Union - many with no film skills - joined. "We taught them film, they taught us organizing," Quinn says.

At a time when sectarian left politics destroyed many organizations, Kartemquinites stayed anchored to a Deweyan vision of democratic participation. The Chicago Maternity Center Story (1976), directed by Suzanne Davenport (who became a school reform activist) and Jenny Rohrer (who went on to work with labor unions and nonprofit organizations) was the highlight of its era. Medical care was changing from a patient-doctor relationship to a set of individually billable procedures, and a venerable Chicago home birth service was being shut down. The Kartemquin collective followed one of the last birthings of the service, within an economic and political analysis. The film has become a classic, still used by feminist groups, medical organizations and women's studies programs alike. When a Tallahassee group fighting healthcare corporatization screened the film, the audience spontaneously marched against a local hospital

With the gradual dissolution of the collective in the 1980s, Quinn and partner Jerry Blumenthal focused on making films about work and labor struggles in Chicago. …