Kartemquin: Documentary’s Driving Force






Documentaries may be one of the hottest film forces today, but all roads lead back to Chicago’s indie powerhouse production company, Kartemquin, which releases two new films in Chicago this week. Like Hoop Dreams, Almost There, and its first film, Home for Life, from 1966, new films Raising Bertie and Abacus find your heart because they let you inside the lives of people and make them matter to you.


Raising Bertie.

Raising Bertie, a six-year portrait of three African American boys living in rural North Carolina, will be playing at the Studio Movie Grill Chatham at 210 West 87th Street from June 16-22.



Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, about a Chinese immigrant family-run bank caught in the 2008 financial crisis, will be shown at the Gene Siskel Film Center, also June 16-22.

With each, the Kartemquin watchwords “democracy through documentary” ring true. The filmmakers will be present to take questions.

While Kartemquin currently collaborates with filmmakers on subjects ranging from Easter Island’s Rapa Nui natives combating the tourist trade, in Eating Up Easter, to a senior citizen Romeo and Juliet destroyed by a greedy guardianship in Edith & Eddie, co-founder Gordon Quinn is going back to the beginnings editing his footage of a protest march in Chicago in 1963.


Gordon Quinn.

Little remembered but a powerful precursor to the recent Women’s March, this march brought 250,000 people to the Loop protesting civil rights discriminations in the city’s schools. Gordon’s many fans eagerly await its premiere in late 2017.


Betsy Steinberg.

We recently sat down with Gordon; Kartemquin Executive Director, Betsy Steinberg; and Tim Horsburgh, Director of Communications; in an old house on Wellington Street, home to the legendary company since almost the beginning.


Tim Horsburgh.


1901 West Wellington (1970s).

The building today is filled with posters of films bearing the Kartemquin name, an original camera outfitted by Gordon weighing at least 50 pounds, a screening room where rough cut films are shown in what was once a ground-floor cleaners, and, most wonderful of all, interns and staff not looking much different than that original crew.


The Kartemquin Collective, 1970s: Vicki Cooper, Jerry Blumenthal, Betsy Martens, Gordon Quinn, Susan Delson, Teena Webb, Sharon Karp, Jenny Rohrer, and Peter Kuttner.

Gordon not only currently edits the 1963 footage but also has mounted a website showing 500 faces of protest participants, asking them to come forward to tell their stories. Many young people found their grandparents on the website and are helping them respond.

Last spring, it was determined that Bernie Sanders was part of that protest. Gordon remembers that time:

“I was a student at the University of Chicago studying social sciences and literature at a time when there was no filmmaking offered. God forbid if you did anything with your hands!  

“I received a tip about the protest and grabbed my camera. We all volunteered on the project; there was no money.

“No one ever talks about this protest in which 250,000 walked out of the schools, but it was the biggest northern civil rights protest. We want to make a half-hour film to be shown in schools as part of our project.”

To Betsy Steinberg, the great demand for documentaries today relates directly to how news is currently delivered: 

“They are a natural rebound from 24-hour news and reality TV where people act badly to make artificial situations even worse. Our core value, democracy through documentaries, really goes back to John Dewey. Documentaries have a crucial role to play, particularly in times like these.”

As we toured editing cubicles and the screening room, Tim explained:

Our mission is supporting filmmakers and ensuring that the documentaries they make are part of the democratic process. We also engage with other media makers, community organizations, and broadcasters and distributors, challenging our field to live up to its democratic promise.

 “We believe in a collaborative community of individual, independent filmmakers. We work with them to realize their vision, not to mold it into a preconceived notion of a film we think they should make.”

Milos Stehlik, founder of Facets and longtime friend of Gordon’s said recently:

“History can’t just be written by generals or society run by politicians. Kartemquin is unique in its unrelenting, 50-year-plus commitment to producing films, which give voice to the voiceless.

“Kartemquin films are a lens on social injustice, inequality, human rights, and a wake-up call to all who see them. That call asks what we must do to make this democracy truly democratic—a society that works, for all and of all. The heroes of Kartemquin-produced documentaries are real people who share their personal, even intimate, stories about the struggle to survive but also to make the world a better place.”

Gordon returns the compliment to Milos:

Documentaries have always and will always be important. Anyone with an iPhone can say that they are making a movie. It is not just about the story being told but the ethics involved. We are grateful that Facets carries many of our films and continues to show new ones.”


For more information on Kartemquin, their films, and screenings, visit kartemquin.com.