In honor of Kartemquin’s 50th anniversary, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens is putting on a retrospective of their films.
Some of the most influential documentaries in American history have been produced by Kartemquin, a Chicago-based collaborative celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Founded by Stan Karter, Jerry Temaner, and Gordon Quinn (“Kartemquin” is a composite of their names), Kartemquin describes itself as “a collaborative center for documentary media makers who seek to foster a more engaged and empowered society. In honor of Kartemquin’s 50th anniversary the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens is putting on a retrospective of their films from August 19 through 28. You can see a complete list of the screenings here, with a few of the highlights discussed below.
While crime in the United States is generally on the decline, in a few places the trend is in the opposite direction. One such place is Chicago, a city of 2.7 million that had 516 homicides in 2012; by way of comparison, all of Canada, with a population of 34.8 million, had 543 homicides that same year. If you further consider that most murders are concentrated in certain neighborhoods, it means that some citizens of America’s third-largest city are living in neighborhoods as dangerous as war zones. The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011) goes inside the efforts of CeaseFire, an anti-violence organization founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, which attempts to stop the violence by treating it as a contagious disease that can be spread from person to person.
The front-line “medics” in CeaseFire work to interrupt violence before it happens, or to intervene before it becomes worse. The main tools of their trade are education and mediation: teaching that problems can be solved and disputes settled without violence, and helping to facilitate peaceful resolutions in disputes. James focuses on three of these interrupters, all with personal or familial connections to violence: Ameena Matthews, daughter of Jeff Fort, co-founder of the Blackstone Rangers gang; Eddie Bocanegra, a former gang member; and Cobe Williams, who did time in prison for drug possession and aggravated assault. They’re both brave and effective, but the task is so immense that may wonder whether the appropriate metaphor for their work is “better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” or “you can’t empty the ocean with a tea cup.” The Interrupters will screen on Friday, Aug. 19, at 7:00 pm, with director Steve James in person.
The earliest film in the retrospective, Inquiring Nuns (Gordon Quinn and Gerald Temaner, 1968), features two Sisters Marie Arné and Mary Campion interviewing people in Chicago about happiness. When asked what makes them happy, most interviewees mention personal, immediate things like good health, family, and a reasonable standard of material comfort, while when asked what makes them unhappy, they tend to mention geopolitical events like the Vietnam War or abstractions like “so much hate in the world” or “the egoism of people.” Inquiring Nuns was influenced by Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer, but feels more like a series of man-on-the-street interviews of the type beloved of TV news programs. The nuns are good interviewers, and the first half hour of this film is interesting, but the second half hour feels like a bridge too far—the responses are longer but less interesting, and the subject matter has worn out its welcome. Inquiring Nuns will screen with the short film Parents (1968, 20 min.) on Saturday, Aug. 20, at 2:00 pm, with director Gordon Quinn.
The most famous film to come out of Kartemquin has to be Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994), which has deservedly been showered with honors (but not an Academy Award—the outcry from that omission forced the Academy to change its nominating process). It follows two basketball players, William Gates and Arthur Agee, through their high school careers, with a brief look at their college years also. Both are from poor African American families and both are recruited to play for a private high school, St. Joseph (Isaiah Thomas also played there, a fact not lost on Gates and Agee).
St. Joseph’s is a huge culture shock for Gates and Agee, who travel by train each day from poor, predominantly African American neighborhood to a private, primarily white school in the suburbs. Their new classmates, for the most part, are much wealthier than them, and far better prepared academically as well. Gates and Agee respond differently to their new environment, and watching how their decisions play out over the course of eight years is totally absorbing. Financial issues also affect their progress: both have partial scholarships, but coming up with the balance proves more of a problem for one of them than for the other. Hoop Dreams is a great film to watch if you’re a basketball fan, but even if you aren’t, it’s well worth your time for the up close and personal view it provides of how issues of race and class play out in the lives of these talented young men and their families. Hoop Dreams will be screened on Sunday, Aug. 21, and 2 pm, with director Steve James in person.
Stevie (Steve James, 2002) is a painful film to watch, but that pain is also the source of its strength. In 1982, while a student at Southern Illinois University, director James was an Advocate Big Brother to Stevie Fielding, a troubled boy living in nearby Pomona. After losing touch with Stevie for more than a decade, James decides to see how he’s doing and becomes involved in his life once again.
Two stories are told in Stevie. The more conventional is that of Stevie Fielding, whose childhood consisted largely of abuse and neglect, and who became a petty criminal given to substance abuse and violence. When Stevie is charged with sexually molesting an eight-year-old cousin, it feels less like a shock and more like the cycle of abuse predictably replicating itself in another generation. In this part of the film James succeeds in maintaining the tricky balance between being sympathetic to Stevie and excusing his behavior, and captures an unusually candid portrait of grinding rural poverty. The second story involves the relationship between the documentary filmmaker and his subject. James, living a relatively comfortable life in Chicago with his wife and three children, acknowledges that some of his motivation in becoming involved with Stevie was to feel better about himself. He also acknowledges that, despite good intentions, he was in some ways just another in the long line of inconsistent adults who weren’t there when Stevie needed him. Stevie will screen on Sunday, Aug. 21, at 6:15 pm, with director Steve James.
The American painter Leon Golub, who died in 2004, specialized in large-scale, disturbing images of conflict and violence, often drawing on press photos and other documentation of contemporary events. Golub: Late Works Are the Catastrophes (Jerry Blumenthal, Gordon Quinn, 2004) offers a look at Golub’s life, art, and working process, featuring many clips of the artist in his studio (he loves being on camera) and trips to museums where his art is displayed. Less conventionally, it includes many newsreel clips and sections from new programs reporting various atrocities of just the type that Golub used for inspiration in his work. The result is a refreshingly unconventional film that’s not like any art documentary you’ve ever seen, and is far more interesting because of it. Golub: Late Works Are the Catastrophes will screen on Sunday, Aug. 28, at 2:30 pm.
The most recent film included in the retrospective, Raising Bertie (Margaret Byrne, 2016), offers an extended look at the lives of three young African American men—Reginald “Junior” Askew, David “Bud” Perry, and Davonte “Dada” Harrell—as they come of age in Bertie County, North Carolina. As the film begins, all three are students at an alternative high school, The Hive, for at-risk young men. Byrne’s original plan was for the film to focus on The Hive, but when it unexpectedly closed for budgetary reasons, she shifted her focus to Askew, Perry, and Harrell, whom she followed for six years.
Raising Bertie is a leisurely and often lyrical film, reflecting the slow pace of life in the rural South, and sometimes feels more like a collage than a linear film, despite title cards informing us of the passing of time. None of the young men has a clear direction in life, which may be a logical response to a town where opportunities for employment are limited to a chicken processing plant, various fast food restaurants, or working in the fields. Poverty and the heritage of racism constrain their choices, and while well-meaning adults try to help (in particular Vivian Saunders, who re-opens The Hive as a community center), sometimes it just doesn’t register. Life still goes on, however—there are births and deaths, football games and graduations, reunions and estrangements. Byrne offers an unusually intimate view of these young men’s lives, telling stories that are often left out in discussions of racism and poverty. Raising Bertie will screen on Sunday, Aug. 28, at 7:00 pm with director Margaret Byrne in person. | Sarah Boslaugh