Kartemquin: A Different Kind of Dream Factory

By Terry, Cliff | American Cinematographer, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Kartemquin: A Different Kind of Dream Factory


Terry, Cliff, American Cinematographer


For years, the Chicago-based company which helped produced Hoop Dreams has served as a haven of support for documentary filmmakers.

AT DAWN ON A COLD FEBRUARY DAY in 1995, various filmmaking types, their families and several members of the media, including ABC and CNN camera crews, gathered in a nondescript, cluttered and somewhat shabby building in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago's North Side, home to a venerable documentary company with the tongue-twisting name of Kartemquin Films.

The group had come to West Wellington Avenue to get the first word on the Academy Award nominations. The filmmakers were looking forward to being picked in the documentary category for their critically acclaimed and audience-pleasing film, Hoop Dreams, a Kartemquin co-production about the complex role basketball plays in the lives of two inner-city kids who dream of making the NBA. The film had made many Best Ten lists, and some reviewers had chosen it as the best film of the year, period. So things looked good that morning. Surely, the work would receive a nod in the documentary category. And maybe - just maybe - it would earn a tap for Best Picture.

Of course, it wasn't to be. Hoop Dreams received one Academy nomination, for editing, and the press reacted strongly and even angrily. The New York Times, for one, reported: "The omission of Hoop Dreams prompted not only bewilderment but also questions about how documentaries are selected." The Chicago Tribune, for another, called it "a kick in the teeth." Even Tom Brokaw of the NBC Nightly News weighed in with an un-anchorish opinion, describing the snub as being, "for many of us, a big disappointment."

Despite the instant publicity gained from the Hoop Dreams hoopla, Kartemquin Films had been around for years - 29, to be exact - and had turned out an assortment of documentaries covering subjects from nuns asking passers-by if they are happy (The Inquiring Nuns) to the hostility of the medical profession to natural childbirth (Marco), racism (Trick Bag), workers struggling to save their jobs (The Last Pullman Car) and the life of an on-the-edge, politically-motivated artist (Golub), the latter of which premiered at the 1988 New York Film Festival.

The films had been shown nationwide on public television and screened at such festivals as those in Berlin, Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco, Montreal, Leipzig, Melbourne, Sydney , Edinburgh, Florence, Dublin and Rotterdam, even earning a few awards along the way. But it was at the Big Muddy Festival in Carbondale, Illinois that Kartemquin and Hoop Dreams first scored big points.

One of the longest-running documentary companies in the country, Kartemquin has always been a home to young, ambitious filmmakers, providing equipment, expertise and encouragement. At one point in its history, a collective of those interested in documentary techniques and social-issue subjects was formed within the overall company, resulting in relationships with Kartemquin that exist to this day.

That was one of several stages through which the company has evolved. "We started off, in 1966, as a corporation," says Gordon Quinn, a co-founder who is now a senior partner. "Our very earliest stated principle was to make films about social issues - and not to make money. You know, it was the Sixties, and we were committed to this grand vision."

"Unfortunately, it has held true," says senior partner Jerry Blumenthal. "But in the Sixties, it was like music to our ears. Now, it sounds like Bwla Bartok."

" Kartemquin has always been receptive to people bringing in projects like ours," says Steve James, director and co-producer of Hoop Dreams. "There's never been rhyme nor reason, but it's always been a sort of gathering place.

"I don't think people realize that Kartemquin - which was on an incredible shoestring at that time - sustained Hoop Dreams for a number of years without receiving anything," James points out. "Because of their long history, they gave us instant legitimacy that we could draw upon by putting their name in our funding proposals. …

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