Roadtrip Report from Chicago

Docs In Progress Executive Director Erica Ginsberg continues her journey through the midwest to learn more about film organizations and communities with a stop in Chicago.


Chicago is probably the largest film city I would be visiting on this roadtrip.  A major center for strong film programs at local universities, it has also traditionally been a hub for the advertising industry, so commercial TV production has been quite strong.  The city’s progressive roots also mean it has a strong record of social issue filmmaking – both documentaries and nonprofit advocacy.  Chicago has a number of different art house cinemas and film festivals, is home to one of the country’s greatest resources for independent film, Facets Multi-Media, and one of the country’s best known film critics, Roger Ebert. 

While it has more than a dozen different film and filmmaker organizations, I only had a chance to visit two: Chicago Filmmakers and Kartemquin Films.  However, these two – plus some informal meetings with individual filmmakers – gave me some sense of how important the filmmaking tradition is here.

[caption id="attachment_2009" align="alignright" width="216"] Brenda Webb with some of Chicago Filmmakers' collection.[/caption]


Like some of the film organizations earlier in my journey, Chicago Filmmakers is a well-established organization.  It had been founded in 1973 by experimental filmmakers looking for a space to screen works which would not otherwise be shown in mainstream theaters.  Originally an outgrowth of the Art Institute of Chicago’s gallery, it became an independent nonprofit in 1976 and expanded beyond being an exhibition space.  That was around the time Brenda Webb became involved in the organization and she remains to this day its Executive Director.


Talking to Webb gave me a lot of insights into how film arts nonprofits expand and contract to adapt to changing economic times and the needs of filmmakers.  In the mid-70s, at the height of the movement towards artist coops, Chicago Filmmakers tried that direction, planning to have shares which a filmmaker could sell off if they got to a point of not needing any of the shared equipment.  This, of course, was a time when film equipment was too expensive for most filmmakers to purchase on their own and it also did not become obsolete as quickly as today’s video technology.

While the coop model did not survive, Chicago Filmmakers did and eventually saw that the natural outgrowth of having equipment was to offer classes.  By the early 1980s, it was also running several specialized film festivals, had taken over a distribution collection, and continued to offer classes, equipment rentals, and exhibition space.

Interestingly though, even as the organization had become more established and adept at fundraising (even getting funding from the MacArthur Foundation), Webb felt it was important to keep the organization very focused.  Unlike many other organizations I visited, Chicago Filmmakers does not own its space and has actually downsized its exhibition screening space to further reduce overhead costs.  It also has kept its staff size small – with only two permanent staff.  Webb explained that she did not like the idea of having staffing tied to program funding since it often meant having to hire, let go, and rehire, depending on where program funding trends veered.

Today Chicago Filmmakers has as its core its classes and workshops, weekly exhibition screenings, filmmaker services (largely equipment though it also has a fiscal sponsorship program to allow filmmakers to raise funds for their films).  Webb has seen that the organization’s stakeholders have become more diverse – more women, more ethnic and racial diversity, representing more professions than just film.  Many of the contract instructors also teach in film programs at local universities, but like the variety of having a more eclectic student body.

Webb says that its constituents do cherry-pick their involvement with the organization – these days, becoming members primarily for the class discounts.  Equipment access still exists but is not as important as it was in the early days since many of today’s filmmakers can afford their own equipment.  Chicago Filmmakers has worked to deepen the engagement with filmmakers by holding free events which draw local filmmakers together – filmmaker talks and fun and energizing “speed networking” events which draw between 50-80 filmmakers.  These events provide an added resource for members, but also draw new people to the organization.

A bit further south but still on Chicago's northside, Kartemquin Films is one of the best known documentary production entities in the nation.  However, it was not founded as a for-profit company.  As with many of the other organizations visited, it was founded in a time when cooperatives and collectives seemed to be the ideal means to make a difference creatively, socially, and politically.  Founded by three University of Chicago graduates in 1966, Kartemquin has never veered from its primary mission to make documentaries that examine and critique society through the stories of real people.  As Sight & Sound wrote of the organization, “their non-profit mandate in that tumultuous era was on-the-spot, confrontational documentaries that furthered progressive causes and interrogated the role of the artist in society, all while maintaining a devoted allegiance to Chicago proper.”

This has resulted in more than 50 documentaries – from their very first film Home for Life about elderly people entering a senior home to their latest film, As Goes Janesville about the impact of the current recession in a manufacturing town.  They are probably best known for their 1984 film Hoop Dreams about two boys coming of age amidst their goals to become professional basketball players; the post-9/11 PBS series on immigrants The New Americans, and 2011’s The Interruptersabout a grassroots approach to curbing violence in some of Chicago’s most troubled neighborhoods Kartemquin and its films have won MacArthur Awards, Peabody Awards, Emmy Awards, and numerous honors from film critics associations and film festivals (though to much public chagrin, have not yet even garned an Academy Award or even a nomination in the documentary category for its two biggest theatrical films, Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters).

[caption id="attachment_2010" align="alignleft" width="222"] The granddaddy of  Doc Houses.[/caption]

During my visit to Kartemquin, I was especially taken with the fact that their headquarters was in a corner house in a residential neighborhood; without even realizing this, Docs In Progress has followed in their footsteps.  I also feel a kinship around the spirit of community.  Although it had abandoned the collective framework after only six years, Kartemquin very much retains its collective spirit – one built on sharing, mentorship, and both moral and logistical support.

While Artistic Director and original co-founder Gordon Quinn was not there that day since he was en route to a shoot overseas, I did have a chance to meet with the organization’s Executive Director Justine Nagan and Director of Communications and Programs, Tim Horsburgh.

There were also a handful of other Kartemquin staff and associates

[caption id="attachment_2011" align="alignright" width="219"] Tim Horsburgh shows one of the original workhorse cameras used by Kartemquin founders in the early days of the organization.[/caption]

there -- though the day before a holiday weekend, it was not quite as full and frenzied as it probably usually is, given the fact that it has a permanent staff of 13, another 19 producers and associates, and up to five interns each semester.  Kartemquin manages its own DVD fulfillment; is currently working on a large project aimed at preserving and cataloging more than 45 years of film and tape footage; and appears to have no less than five different projects in different phases of development, production, post-production, or distribution onsite (not including others being produced elsewhere by producers and associates).

Kartemquin has gone through a big change in the last five years.  It revamped its board, hired Nagan as its new Executive Director (with Quinn transitioning to an Artistic Director role), and went through a strategic planning process to help strengthen its capacity to outlive its founders and brand itself as an organization with a body of work as much as promoting each film individually.  Perhaps most interestingly, Kartemquin is using its vast knowledge and experience to help mentor a new generation of documentary filmmakers.

It is not unusual for someone who starts out as an intern to progress to being an associate producer or assistant editor, and some were even now in higher level staff positions or producing documentaries of their own.  In addition to developing its internships into a comprehensive programs for students to give to the organization and get a unique personal and professional development experience, Kartemquin has formalized many of its other efforts to support new voices in documentary.  

KTQ Labs is its own form of work-in-progress constructive critique workshops, held primarily within the organization, but recently expanding out into more public fora.  Kartemquin has also been working to support diversity in filmmaking, first through its Diversity Fellowship Program that is supporting the production of a work-in-progress American Arab and through a new program in partnership with the  Community Film Workshop to present workshops aimed at emerging filmmakers residing on the South and West sides of Chicago.  Kartemquin also has started a program called Rock the Doc, a meet-up which can draw as many as 150 people.

It has also come into its own as one of the strongest voices advocating for the independent film community nationally.  This is something crucial, especially since the demise of the Association of Independent Film and Videomakers (AIVF).  While other organizations like the International Documentary Association and the Center for Social Media have been a strong part of a renewal of advocacy efforts among filmmakers, Kartemquin is one of the few production-focused entities which has been highly vocal on a national level, unafraid in some cases of biting the hand that feeds it.

Kartemquin had always had advocacy as part of its core mission.  It was instrumental in the formation of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) which helped get PBS to program documentaries and other film works made by independent filmmakers.  It has spoken out strongly on the side of filmmakers when it comes to issues where copyright and commerce converge in ways that can hinder documentary filmmakers – most notably on Fair Use issues. Just this year, the organization has led the national  #PBSNeedsIndies campaign to ensure that PBS’ two strongest independent film strands POV and Independent Lens did not get moved to a timeslot when local affiliates could opt instead for local programming, thus reducing potential viewership for these programs.

It will be very interesting to see how Kartemquin further develops in the coming years - no doubt with more strong social issue documentaries, but also as a continued key player in the development of independent documentary filmmakers.

I also had a chance to meet informally with several other local filmmakers, including three who had worked in various ways with Kartemquin: Maria Finitzo (5 GirlsMapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita), Bob Hercules (Bill T. Jones: a Good ManForgiving Dr. Mengele), and David E. Simpson (Milking the RhinoRefrigerator Mothers).  I am especially grateful to Finitzo who graciously hosted me during my stay in Chicago.  They gave me additional insights into the world of documentary filmmaking in the region.

[caption id="attachment_2013" align="alignleft" width="208"] Ryan Ferguson in production on Skate or Die.[/caption]

I also had a chance to have coffee with Ryan Ferguson(who I had met – as with Laura Paglin in Cleveland – through the online documentary community, The D-Word).  A new generation of Chicago documentarians, Ferguson is a Columbia College alum who makes a modest living from freelance video production work and has produced several documentary shorts.  He is currently at work on his first feature documentary Skate or Die about how skateboarding becomes a literal and figurative vehicle to escape the perils of gang life.

Ferguson is part a new generation of filmmakers who are not letting the increased competition and decreased funding of foundation grants discourage them.  Instead, they are moving forward with their filmmaking efforts in spurts and starts, using their own equipment and building their shoots around paid work.  Skate or Die recently succeeded in raising more than $36,000 through Kickstarter to cover costs associated with editing a rough cut.  While the amount raised was notable, even more so was the fact that it was raised from nearly 500 of contributors, the majority of whom were giving less than $100 dollars and including many people previously unknown to Ferguson or his producing partner Azam Ahmed.

While some may fear that crowdfunding is simply giving in to the reality that other funding sources are becoming more limited and competitive, others see it as a way not only to make the fundraising process more transparent and create projects that might not otherwise be realized, but also to find new ways to build community where hundreds or even thousands of people can be personally vested in the success of a film.  Ferguson said it was one of the hardest and most exhilarating things he had ever accomplished and he is looking forward to moving forward with his film.  And perhaps, in an fitting irony, a first-time feature filmmaker like Ferguson was not the only one finding success with crowdfunding this summer; so too was Steve James, a longtime Kartemquin producer who raised more than $50,000 on Indiegogo for his new project, Generation Food. 

Is crowdfunding the new collective?  That remains to be seen, but it was an interesting conversation in Chicago, perhaps to be continued with others when I reach the NAMAC Conference next week.

But first it's on to Wisconsin…

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