Kartemquin at 50: Fully engaged

As Chicago-based non-profit production outfit Kartemquin Films celebrates 50 years of bringing acclaimed, socially conscious docs to audiences worldwide, principals in the team reflect on its first half-century and what lies ahead.
June 16, 2016

This year, Chicago-based non-profit production outfit Kartemquin Films celebrates 50 years of bringing acclaimed, socially conscious documentary to audiences worldwide. Here, principals in the Kartemquin team reflect on its first half-century and what lies ahead.

Once a month at Chicago’s Kartemquin Films, about 25 to 35 staff, associates and filmmakers file into the large conference area, better known as the “storefront,” for a work-in-progress film screening. Surrounded by posters, books and old VHS tapes and DVDs, a filmmaker presents their material to the room and gets feedback on such elements as story structure and character development. Making a Murderer passed through in 2010, the forthcoming Monster in the Mind was presented in 2014 and The Prison in Twelve Landscapes was shown last September.

Gordon Quinn at the 2015 IDA Awards

Gordon Quinn at the 2015 IDA Awards

A well-meaning policy intended to encourage participants to speak positively about a project for 15 minutes before delving into the criticism didn’t last long. The screenings, according to Kartemquin’s founder and artistic director Gordon Quinn, tend to get “very hot.” No one holds back.

“One of our core values is we want to help people make the film they’re making, not the film that we would make,” says the 74-year-old Quinn, whom most call the heart of the organization. “People are hungry for honest, constructive feedback.”

To be sure, in a doc landscape where most filmmakers are flying solo without a network of support, the organization’s legendary screenings – formally known as KTQ Labs – currently have a six-month wait list. Life Itself director Steve James, a 30-year veteran of Kartemquin, says you have to be prepared to have your film taken apart. “But they’ll tell you what works, too.”

This resilient, evolving and no-nonsense community approach has been a hallmark of Kartemquin since Stanley Karter, Jerry Temaner and Quinn formed the outfit (named with a combination of their last names) in 1966. With its 50th anniversary being marked with assorted events, including a June 24 #KTQ Birthday Party at Chicago’s Harris Theatre and a September retrospective at the UCLA Film and TV Archive at the Hammer Museum, Kartemquin is both reflecting on a legacy of social justice-driven filmmaking, and looking forward as a progressive not-for-profit media arts organization.


Quinn, a recent recipient of the International Documentary Association’s career achievement award, is fond of saying he never went to film school, but will swiftly add that what he studied instead – the liberal arts and humanities – he still uses every day in his film work, and applied in earnest in Kartemquin’s early years.

Quinn shooting Thumbs Down in 1967.

Quinn shooting Thumbs Down in 1967.

The group’s first doc was Home for Life (1966), a vérité study of two elderly people entering a senior’s home, which was soon followed by Inquiring Nuns (1968), in which two young nuns wander Chicago asking passers-by questions about their lives. The films made an impact, but didn’t prompt the larger social examinations Kartemquin was after.

“We realized you can’t just reflect society back upon itself. You have to have an analytical dimension also,” says Quinn.

By this point, Stanley Karter had left, and Jerry Blumenthal had joined as a partner. The group became more politicized when the Kartemquin Collective was formed between 1971 and 1972 with such figures as Jenny Rohrer, Suzanne Davenport, Richard Schmeichen and Judy Hoffman – all of whom believed in using film for social change.

“At one point we were reading and discussing [Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong], and we’d have two meetings a week about structure and identity. It was a heady time. We were going to change the world,” says Quinn of the 1970s, which saw the release of What the F*** Are These Red Squares? (1970) and The Chicago Maternity Center Story (1976).

By 1978, however, the collective – which had now moved to its current headquarters at West Wellington and North Wolcott Avenues on Chicago’s North Side – had broken down and parted ways. “The times were changing, and it was a real struggle because people needed to make a living,” shrugs Quinn.


Steve James, then a few years out of grad school at Southern Illinois University, came to Kartemquin with producing partner Frederick Marx in 1986 with a 30-minute film on a single basketball court.

“At the time, it was going to be a short film, focused on a single playground. [Quinn] liked the idea, he liked us, and thought, ‘Well, these tall white guys could maybe do this,’” laughs James.

Production began on Hoop Dreams in 1987 and the doc premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994.

Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Fred Marx filming Hoop Dreams.

Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Fred Marx filming Hoop Dreams.

“When Hoop Dreams was released, it was like, wow, here’s a film that millions of people saw who would never watch a film about an inner city family [or] a social problem,” says Quinn. “But they watched Hoop Dreams, because it was about sports, about family dramas, about young men coming of age.”

The film’s success was a turning point for the organization, which pivoted back to its vérité roots, though Quinn hesitates to offer a neat definition of a Kartemquin undertaking.

“People talk a lot about what makes a Kartemquin film a Kartemquin film. And it’s not like, ‘Oh, it’s pure vérité,’ or it’s this, or it’s that. There are certain underlying ethical issues and guiding principles, but it’s the filmmaker’s film,” he says.

This connection with creators, he says, is a courtship that leads to a long-term relationship. Steve James, for example, has produced almost all his feature docs with Kartemquin, with the exceptions of Reel Paradise (2005) and Head Games (2012).

Tim Horsburgh

Tim Horsburgh

“It’s about a relationship with a filmmaker that we like, and subject matter that we are passionate about and they are just as passionate about,” adds Tim Horsburgh, director of communications and distribution, who joined in 2009 and now manages the “pipeline” of potential projects. “If we commit to a film and that filmmaker, we see it as a lifelong marriage.”

The Independent Television Service (ITVS), which Quinn helped to create, has coproduced and championed a dozen projects through Kartemquin, including the series The New Americans (2004) and acclaimed doc The Interrupters (2011).

“The Kartemquin filmmakers have brought forward characters and stories that are at the core of the ITVS mission – stories that represent the diversity of the world and have been underrepresented in mainstream media,” Jim Sommers, senior VP of content at ITVS, says in an email.

Sommers, who has known Quinn and Kartemquin since the early 1990s, notes the organization often looks in their own backyard to bring forward a local story that speaks to a national and global audience.

“I think what sets them apart and why their work aligns so well with ITVS’ mission is that they are also committed to making sure their programs are not only seen, but that outreach and engagement are central to the process of their filmmaking. These stories have a purpose to inform and engage citizens and hopefully impact positive change.”

Gordon Quinn and Justine Nagan

Gordon Quinn and Justine Nagan


In 2007, Kartemquin received one of eight international MacArthur Awards for Creative and Effective Institutions, a US$500,000 boost that marked its first major institutional support. Alongside then-executive director Justine Nagan‘s sustainability-focused restructuring, Kartemquin was an evolving brand.

“For us and for a lot of groups that started in the 1960s, ‘brand’ is kind of a dirty word, so even though that’s what we were doing, I had to be really careful about how to talk about it,” she says.

Leadership concessions can be turbulent, but both Nagan and Quinn say the 2008 transition was relatively smooth. Nagan first joined as a volunteer while completing graduate studies at the University of Chicago in 2003. Upon becoming staff in 2005, her first title was director of communications and distribution.

“What I did was try to talk about the role of media arts in the cultural landscape, and that it should be considered in the same way you think about visual and dramatic arts,” says Nagan, who left Kartemquin last fall to serve as executive producer of PBS doc strand ‘POV’ and executive director of American Documentary.

“The advocacy work I did for the organization was about that, and basic stuff [such as] press and PR and making sure the organization was mentioned and not just the films, knowing you could leverage some of the more well-known filmmakers to help grow the field, and help nurture emerging filmmakers.”

Quinn quips that Nagan “had the fire in the belly to lead.” She not only built the organization into a vibrant not-for-profit with an engaged board, but also strengthened existing programs. The lively feedback screenings became KTQ Labs, a robust intern program was created and Diversity in Docs – a year-long professional development and mentorship program for emerging doc makers of color – was formed.


On the heels of receiving $1 million in grants from the MacArthur Foundation and Sage Foundation in December, the organization in February had its first “viral experience” after Quinn and producer Rachel Dickson uncovered footage of U.S. presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders getting arrested at a 1963 University of Chicago protest.

This year also marks the new leadership of Betsy Steinberg, the former Illinois Film Office managing director who took over from Nagan as executive director.

Betsy Steinberg

Betsy Steinberg

Moving forward, Kartemquin is looking to bolster its distribution model through stronger relationships with partner venues, festivals, distributors and sales agents. Quinn adds that digital players such as Netflix and Amazon are distribution arenas they need to be more aware of.

But for Quinn, an Indie Caucus member who led the charge to keep ‘POV’ and ‘Independent Lens’ in primetime slots, public television is still important.

“The biggest audience you’re going to have is with an ‘Independent Lens’ or ‘POV’ broadcast. That’s a bigger audience, and it’s a more diverse audience,” he says.

While a strategic planning process will take place between Quinn, Steinberg and the board only after anniversary celebrations, Steinberg maintains engagement, rather than commercial success, will remain as the primary objective.

“The goal here is to make an impact with the conversation we’re starting, the slice of life we’re shedding a light on and the social issues being illuminated by our films,” she says.

“Films that show people ways to get engaged with society and to frame problems in such a way that people look at them and say not just that something ought to be done about that, but that something can be done,” adds Quinn.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.