Crafting Stories That Promote Social Change: Reflections from Gordon Quinn
By Rebecca Parrish, Summer 2008 Intern
In the 1970s, Gordon Quinn traveled to Gary, Indiana to share his filmmaking skills with a group of young people who lived there. Gordon wanted to provide these sons and daughters of steelworkers with the tools to tell their own stories about their own lives.
After working together on several projects, tensions arose in relation to one particular film idea. The group wanted to create a piece about owner-operator truckers and they wanted Gordon to film it. Believing, as he still does, in empowering people to take control of the filmmaking process, Gordon responded, “I've just shown you how to shoot it. You could do this yourself!” He remembers one woman standing up to explain, “We understand we can do it ourselves. We are doing some things. But this is really important and you have skills at this. You have training. And this story demands to be told with that kind of respect and with that kind of professional treatment.” Gordon thought to himself, “Okay, she's got a point.”
Gordon co-founded Kartemquin in 1966, several years before he traveled to Gary. Throughout the organization’s forty-two year history, Gordon has continued to use his skills to craft compelling stories that help foster social change. I sat down with him to learn more about what goes into the making of a Kartemquin film and how these filmmakers relate to subject, audience and broader society.
According to Gordon, Kartemquin’s films “are usually not simple crowd pleasers.” One of Kartemquin’s most recent releases, In the Family, follows the story of filmmaker Joanna Rudnick after she discovers that she has a genetic mutation that causes cancer. But the movie is about more than Joanna’s personal journey. If the film had focused exclusively on Joanna’s story, Gordon believes “it would probably be an easier film for people to digest.”
The film has been successful precisely because it addresses complex social dynamics. While Joanna’s story provides the spine of the film, she reaches beyond her own experience of the mutation as a middle class white woman to explore how this genetic condition interacts with larger social forces. In Gordon’s words, the movie “has everything. It deals with issues of race, issues of the health care system and the contradictions within it, about the fundamental questions of what's wrong with our patent law in relationship to medicine… And it has science in it.” Weaving all those elements into an eighty-four minute film was no easy task but Gordon would say that it “makes for a much more valuable story.”
This film and all Kartemquin films are about, as Gordon puts it, “what is rubbing up against what.” What are the tensions in how people relate to themselves, to each other and to the broader society? This “rub” provides a window into both the human spirit and the problems in our social structure.
Kartemquin’s first feature, Home for Life, was released in 1966 and the organization’s films have evolved significantly since then. When Gordon Quinn and Gerald Temaner set out to make a movie about two elderly people transitioning into a home for the aged they where strictly bound to the dictums of Cinéma Vérité. They believed that “if you hold a mirror up to society, if you show how it’s functioning and what its problems are, that would be enough to create social change.” But Gordon later concluded, “what we hadn't taken into account is power relationships and if you don't understand the power relationship within a social context, not much change can take place.”
Moving forward, Kartemquin filmmakers began to integrate more analytical elements and their own voices became more apparent. If you watch the 1976 Chicago Maternity Center Story, you will hear the politicized narrator’s voice carrying an analysis about the social and political forces, such as the corporatization of medicine, which caused the center to close. Today, it is the subjects in Kartemquin’s films who carry that analysis and the editors who weave those voices together to make a statement.
Kartemquin’s films are powerful because they highlight the ways in which, as Carol Hanisch
wrote, “the personal is political.” Viewers of Kartemquin films care about the social issues addressed, because in watching these documentaries we develop a relationship with some of the people who are most affected. In 2004, Kartemquin explored the controversial topic of US immigration in their landmark miniseries, The New Americans. The series made an impact because it enabled the viewer to connect with the subjects on an emotional level.
The New Americans is a film about immigration but it is also about much more than that: “We were making a film about complicated human beings who basically were no better or no worse than any other human beings.” For Gordon these contradictions and complication in the human story are just as important as any political analysis. These are the elements that enable people to “engage with the characters on a human level. Then, once they're involved, once they've been moved…then they're in a much more likely place to begin to think about issues in a different way.”
Of course, this approach to filmmaking requires a high degree of intimacy with one’s subjects. For this reason, the filmmaker bears a particular responsibility to the people who have revealed so much of themselves, who have handed their stories over to be crafted into a nonfiction film. Kartemquin filmmakers do not take this responsibility lightly.
Back in Gary, Indiana, when Gordon heard the young woman’s call to film the story himself, he kept his subjects closely involved, bringing footage from house to house and listening to people’s reactions. Today, Kartemquin filmmakers often give their subjects the first look at their films. They’ll listen to people’s feedback and sometimes take out parts that the subjects aren’t comfortable including. Discomfort, however, doesn’t automatically lead to a particular scene’s removal from a film. Gordon does promise, however, that he will really listen to his subjects’ opinions. Sometimes he’ll actively debate someone about a particular scene and if he can’t convince them that it should be in the movie, he’ll take it out.
Gordon sees this tension between how a subject might understand their story and how the filmmaker sees it as an important element to a strong film because these tensions can form a dialectic. “I think those tensions are always interesting because rather than limiting what can happen, they can bring you to a new way of seeing something that wasn't in anybody's mind.” This discrepancy between the subject’s and filmmaker’s perspectives creates a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Most Kartemquin films provide a small glimpse into the relationship between filmmaker and subject, reminding the audience that there are indeed filmmakers crafting the story. To dispel any illusion that we are somehow watching unmediated truth, Kartemquin films often include occasions when those working behind the camera ‘break frame.’ Gordon remembers two such reflexive moments in Kartemquin’s 1988 film, Golub. In one scene the painter Leon Golub returns some change he had borrowed from Gordon, who is filming at the time. Gordon reaches from behind the camera to receive it. Another scene reveals Jerry Blumenthal who, while doing sound and wearing headphones, sticks his tongue out so that Golub can see the color of the human tongue for one of his paintings
Gordon’s ultimate goal is always to provide a compelling story through which the viewer can develop her own analysis. He explains, “you don't want to tell people what to think and you don't want to tell them how to feel… If I want someone to learn something from our films, I want them to be in that position of saying, ‘Hey, you know what…’ That's what I want. I don't want, ‘Oh, they told me.’ I want them to see certain things and make the connection for themselves.”
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With a noted tradition of nurturing emerging talent and acting as a leading voice for independent media, Kartemquin is building on more than 50 years of history as Chicago’s documentary powerhouse.
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