[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
For 42 years, Kartemquin Films has been expressing the need for social change through documentary films. The journey began first in Chicago but now reaches a global audience. Founding members Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal envisioned the film company as a way to bring the need for social change to the public through cinéma vérité. Kartemquin Films began in 1966 as a local film company hoping to provide insight and spark change in the community. In 1968, a year that rocked the world, Kartemquin Films released three documentaries that showed a changing face of youth and the emergence of the New Left.
The 22 minute film Parents documents a parish youth group discussion about the relationships teens have with their parents by posing questions about what these relationships mean and how they evolve, and how they are difficult yet important. This film, made at a time when youth were fighting to be heard, showed real challenges that particular young people were facing in regard to authority, parents and the community.
Thumbs Down offers a perspective on anti-Vietnam participation among a different church group. This film focuses on anti-war efforts among a group of young Christians who oppose the war because they believe their faith means taking social and moral responsibility in current issues. This film examines the old church and the new, showing the rocky transition from deep-rooted beliefs to new awareness. This film sheds a new light on the people that opposed the Vietnam war. Many different groups helped transform social and political thought in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The public image of antiwar protest is associated with radicals and militants, with little mention of portions of the movement that flew under the radar, gaining strength in local communities rather than large-scale demonstrations that rocked the country.
Kartemquin Films also made Inquiring Nuns in 1968. This documentary has an interview format: the film crew follows two nuns around Chicago, and they ask various people one question: “Are you happy?” In fact, all three of the 1968 Kartemquin Films focused on religious groups or people—two church groups, and the interviewing nuns. Contrary to a view of religion as conservative and stuffy, these films allow us to see both a diversity of political views among religious people, and the religious elements of activist movements in the 1960s.
Today’s problems differ from those in 1968. In the Family, a 2008 Kartemquin film, focuses on Joanna Rudnick’s struggle with the knowledge of her medical fate. New genetic testing allows women the ability to detect the likelihood of developing certain kinds of breast and ovarian cancers. This film shows what power medical progress gives to various women that Rudnick encounters – these women have the power to save their own life, to predict their fate, but what obligations come with this power? Rudnick, the director and producer for this documentary, follows the tradition of other Kartemquin productions—she localizes a problem, in this case she personalizes it, and makes one case an example for many while simultaneously creating an awareness of social progress.
Kartemquin Films continues to provide insightful views on social change. Although the motives behind each film have changed over the years, the company still pursues its original goals of bringing to light the necessity of social transformation. Kartemquin Films looks through a lens into the lives of individuals to show how social change affects human beings on a personal, local, national and global level. ◊