A Visit to Kartemquin Films: An Inside Look at a Corner Documentary Production Studio

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Kartemquin Films door sign

Kartemquin Films has been producing documentaries out of Chicago since 1966.

Note: This post is the first in a short series about my August 2012 visit to Kartemquin Films, the documentary production powerhouse located in Chicago. Kartemquin was founded in 1966 by University of Chicago graduates Gordon Quinn, Stan Karter, and Jerry Temaner with the mission of producing social issue documentaries, which the collective continues making 46 years later. This post offers some of my first impressions of visiting a film production collective, something I had never done before.

Last month, I presented a poster at a mass communications conference in Chicago. While I was in the Windy City, I took advantage of the opportunity to pay a brief visit to Kartemquin, the documentary organization behind the iconic Hoop Dreams and the recent The Interrupters. I originally queried Communications and Programs Director Tim Horsburgh about events happening in August, but he extended an invitation to stop by instead.

As I rang the bell on that rainy Monday morning, I wondered briefly if I was in the right place. Kartemquin is located in a Chicago neighborhood filled with modest houses and urban-size front lawns. Most of my parking hunting experiences in Chicago require a couple of impatient hours (think Wrigleyville or Wicker Park on the weekend or Lincoln Park on any night), but I found Wellington surprisingly open. My phone picking up their wireless signal and a small sign in the window showing the name both assured me I was where I needed to be. My tour guide for the morning was Tim, the strong voice behind the active Twitter account @Kartemquin and other social media for Kartemquin.

Kartemquin is located in an enormous, century-old house that wears its character and quirks well. The house has the typical characteristics of a home from that era — high ceilings, huge windows, creaky stairs, narrow halls, and random doors to surprising rooms and closets. But the company has made the space its own, from top to bottom, after a fire destroyed its previous location in the early 1970s. Posters from screenings dating back to the 1970s and 1980s adorn the walls, and Christmas lights hang over the archways, ready for this year’s (and last year’s) Christmas party. A fireplace mantle and tables near it hold a wide array of awards from mainstream media, different film festivals, and various documentary organizations. One was an Emmy, one was from the International Documentary Association, and one was from the Sundance Film Festival. The latter one was missing a couple chunks from the glass, though. Like most everything in that house, there’s a story behind that.

After being buzzed in, I made my way to the second floor, which housed the company kitchen, main offices, and workspaces for Tim and others. Don’t let my use of the term “workspaces” evoke a vision of gray-walled cubicles for you. Workspaces here were old desks, chairs, tables, hutches, and whatever else that could be appropriated for use. An old table and the kitchen table serve as meeting spaces as needed. Even though Tim had 100-some messages to sort through after his vacation, he took the time to show me around and introduce me to everyone in the building that day.

Part of the tour included various spaces within the house, including an area on the ground floor known as “The Storefront,” which formerly was rented out to a dry cleaner until the early 1990s). The Storefront is now being used primarily by a small team that is cataloguing all of Kartemquin’s archives, which has an estimated 12,000 pieces. Along with the old film prints, video tapes, and hard drives, the team is uncovering branded items related to their films. Some of the items are their own promotional materials, while others come from PBS and other groups. Check out Kartemquin’s archives blog to learn more about the odd treasures they keep uncovering.

Several rooms throughout the house are dedicated to various projects underway. One room housed the materials being used for the upcoming The Trials of Muhammad Ali, directed by Bill Siegel. Unlike many of the other documentaries about Ali, this one steps outside the ring and gets into the events of 1964-1970, when he converted to Islam, protested the Vietnam War, and was shunned by the boxing community. Books and DVDs filled the shelves on one wall. As someone who has taught a course on the Vietnam War and film and as an Ali fan, I had to contain myself. Had Siegel been there, they would have had to kick me out at the end of the day because I had so many questions I wanted to ask. That one can’t come out soon enough!

Kartemquin also offered an interesting intersection of old and new technologies, which I will get into with my next post.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.