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Filming for Change

Chicago-based Kartemquin Films delves into topics such as stem cells, capital punishement and Vietman

Allison Kessler was in a skiing accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down at 15. Her father, Dr. Jack Kessler, had recently moved to Chicago to run the neurology department at Northwestern University, researching a way to use stem cells to cure diabetes. After Allison’s accident, Dr. Kessler made the decision to abandon his diabetes research and change his concentration, focusing full-time on finding a cure for spinal cord injury using embryonic stem cells.
    Terra Incognita, produced by Kartemquin Films, is a feature-length documentary that tells the Kesslers’ story. The movie is currently making the film festival circuit, including the Chicago International Film Festival, winning awards on its way.
    Kartemquin Films, a Chicago-based, non-profit, was founded in 1966 by three University of Chicago students: Gordon Quinn, Stan Karter and Jerry Temaner. Only Quinn is still with the company, serving as president.
    “We started the company to make films about social issues, to make films that would have some potential to change things, to get people to see things from different perspectives and tell stories about different people,” says Gordon Quinn. “We were excited about filmmaking because we could actually go out into the world and record what was happening and reflect it back to audiences.”
    Kartemquin’s first film, 1966’s Home for Life, chronicled the lives of two elderly people as they left their homes and moved into nursing homes. The film, which won awards at the New York Film Festival, Edinburgh Film Festival and Chicago International Film Festival, was recently restored and played at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
    “When Home for Life was first done, it had a tremendous influence on homes for the elderly in reformatting the way they dealt with new residents that were coming into the homes,” Quinn says. “It was used in schools and medical facilities to train people working with the elderly to do a better job.”
    In the last 40 years, Kartemquin has produced approximately 40 films, with the next five already in the works. Kartemquin won a 2007 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, a $500,000 grant. In its announcement, the MacArthur Foundation said, “To call Kartemquin Films only a production company would be to understate its impact on the critical societal issues it addresses as well as the documentary art form it has shaped.”
    “We focus on putting a human face on today’s most pressing contemporary social issues,” says Justine Nagan, Kartemquin’s communication director. “Home for Life really pushed the boundaries of social documentary at that time, and we’re still trying to push the boundaries.”
    At the Death House Door, a feature-length documentary that will premiere on the Independent Film Channel (IFC) in May, tells the story of a wrongful execution in Texas and the death house pastor who has presided over 95 executions.
    “The pastor started off very pro-death penalty and ends up very anti-death penalty,” Nagan explains. “The films we make really provoke discussion and dialogue in audiences. We stay true to this mission of really looking for meaningful, human stories that really move people.”
    Another film in production, In the Family, which will complete in January, is a documentary that follows several women as they undergo genetic testing to find out if they have the gene that predisposes them to breast and ovarian cancer.
    “The filmmaker, Joanna Rudnick, is 33 and just found out she is at very high risk to develop breast and ovarian cancer, but she wants to have a family and live her life,” Nagan says. “In the film, Joanna talks to other women and considers the issues.”
     Kartemquin’s best-known film is Hoop Dreams, which was released in 1995 and won many awards, including the Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival. The film follows two inner-city basketball players and shows how the game plays a complicated role in their lives.
    “It was very difficult to raise the money [for Hoop Dreams],” Quinn says. “I was a little shocked, but one way or another, it got done. Hoop Dreams really raised our profile and put us on the map.”
    Quinn is currently directing Prisoner of Her Past, a film about late onset post-traumatic stress syndrome in childhood Holocaust survivors, chronicling stories of individuals who are now experiencing flashbacks to what happened to them as children.
    “There’s no question that these films have changed lives and sometimes in very powerful ways,” says Quinn. “Those things are hard to quantify in some cases. When you show a film on Vietnam, there will always be vets in the audience who are moved.
    “What I love about film is that it’s a visual medium, and in the kind of filmmaking we do…you go out and record human behavior and gesturing and what’s happening between people,” Quinn continues. “It enables people to make their own judgments and come to their own conclusions.”
    Nagan asserts that the goal of Kartemquin’s films is to leave the audience with a message. “We really try to provoke discussion and dialogue in audiences. For example, with Terra Incognita and the stem cell debate, we know we’re not going to change anyone’s mind who is on the severe left or the severe right, but we give people in the middle food for thought. It’s how we work.”

Published: December 02, 2007
Issue: December Philanthropy 07