Last Friday, 1,000 people gathered in Chicago to pay tribute to 50 years of Kartemquin, a non-profit documentary company that was started by three Univerisity of Chicago students amidst the political activism and direct cinema movement of the 1960s. When Stan Karter, Jerry Temaner and Gordon Quinn founded the documentary unit in 1966 the mission was to challenge social power-structures by telling intimate stories of ordinary people. Over the years that mission has largely stayed intact, but the method and approach as the company evolved and grew.
In the 1970s, Kartemquin veered away from auteurism and entered their “collective” period. During this time they took a large step in the direction of left-wing activism and agitprop filmmaking, often becoming partners with those struggling for labor, women’s and civil rights by tackling issues of women’s healthcare, gentrification, race and poverty.
In the 1980s, Kartemquin left their collective days behind and re-focused on high quality films, while making a concerted effort to mentor a new generation of filmmakers. Amongst their mentees were Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, who would go on to make the film that would turn the documentary world and the Oscars on their head: “Hoop Dreams” — which is the first of many great films James would make with Kartemquin.
Over the last decade, Kartemquin has also been able to build a more solid foundation and programming to support the documentary community and offer mentorship programs. Friday night, they announced another major initiative and will start giving grants to projects at critical stages of production, designed specifically to support innovative storytelling and diverse new voices.
The Honorary Chair for Friday nights events was Chaz Ebert, whose husband Roger played a huge part in the company’s history. As a young critic, he championed their first film “Home for Life,” and was responsible for putting “Hoop Dreams” on the map by being an early and boisterous champion of the film, a debt James paid back by making “Life Itself,” a film celebrating the life of the great critic.
Below is an exclusive video made by Kartemquin taking you through their unique history with clips from their deep archive of great films.