MacArthur Awards for Creative & Effective Institutions

Kartemquin Films

Chicago, Illinois | 2007 Award Recipient

Filming documentaries, changing society

They are known for award-winning documentaries like Hoop Dreams and The New Americans. But 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.

Indeed, Kartemquin envisions the documentary “as a vehicle to deepen our understanding of society through everyday human drama.” Their documentaries are supported by civic engagement strategies developed with local and national partners to spur discussion and build support for social action.

Consider two of Kartemquin’s creations.

A seven-hour miniseries that aired on PBS in 2004, The New Americans looks at the complexities of contemporary immigration by taking viewers inside the lives of immigrant families from five different countries. A broad campaign was launched in conjunction with the film to engage people in conversation about immigration issues at community forums and classrooms and build cross-ethnic coalitions.

In Vietnam, Long Time Coming, Vietnamese and American veterans are brought together on a bicycle trip that becomes a journey of reconciliation and emotional discovery. Broadcast on NBC, the film won a National Emmy and the Best Documentary award from the Director’s Guild of America.

Besides creating films that galvanize popular attention and civic action, Kartemquin sees itself as a home for independent filmmakers.

“It’s a resource for a filmmaker unlike any place I’ve ever seen,” says producer and director Peter Gilbert. “Right now we’re supposedly in a renaissance of documentary filmmaking, and I don’t think that renaissance would happen if there weren’t organizations like Kartemquin.”

The organization was started in 1966, when Gordon Quinn, Jerry Temaner and Stan Karter—three University of Chicago graduates—made the documentary Home For Life, a chronicle of two elderly people entering a home for the aged. Since then, Kartemquin—a title the filmmakers invented using parts of their last names—has become internationally recognized, producing more than 30 feature-length and short documentary films.

Upcoming works illustrate the organization’s focus on issues of social importance—and its willingness to embrace controversy. At the Death House Door is the story of the wrongful execution of Carlos DeLuna and the man who spent the last day of DeLuna’s life with him, Pastor Carroll Pickett. Terra Incognita is a film and companion civic commitment featuring the story of Dr. Jack Kessler, who is looking for a cure for spinal cord injuries using embryonic stem cells. Milking the Rhino captures the voices of the African communities who live in close proximity to wildlife and are at the vanguard of the community-based conservation movement. Across Kartemquin’s diverse filmmaking is a consistent commitment to quality and societal impact.

Kartemquin will use its $500,000 MacArthur Award for board and staff development, the preservation and digitization of older films, and the creation of a fellowship fund for minority filmmakers.


Grantee Profile: Learn more about Kartemquin Films

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