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Documentary Filmmaker Gordon Quinn

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(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKSTONES' "BLU-BOP")

AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles we talk to notable artists, scholars, and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Gordon Quinn.

(SOUNDBITE OF OAKTREE’S "A LITTLE TENDERNESS")

He's the artistic director and founding member of Kartemquin films and he's been making documentaries for over 50 years. His work is influenced by the Cinéma Vérité movement; creating films that investigate and critique society by documenting the lives of real people, letting events unfold as naturally as possible. Gordon Quinn executive produces most projects at Kartemquin, including their best-known film, Hoop Dreams, which won critical acclaim and several awards. Other films include A Good Man, about the dancer Bill T. Jones; and '63 Boycott, which features previously-unseen archival footage of the 1963 Chicago public schools boycott. Gordon Quinn was on the IU Bloomington campus for Visible Evidence, an international conference on documentary film and media. While he was here, he came to the WFIU studios for a conversation with Janae Cummings.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Gordon, welcome to Profiles.

GORDON QUINN: Thanks. Glad to be here.

JANAE CUMMINGS: You're one of the world's most celebrated documentarians, but we all have a beginning. We all start somewhere. Those are the places where the seeds for our passions are planted. Can you tell us a little bit about your roots?

GORDON QUINN: Well I grew up in Northern Virginia. My parents were both from Boston. I was going to legally-segregated schools. Early on I was concerned about integration, social justice issues, things like that, and was always a little bit on the outs from my high school world. When I went to the University of Chicago kind of by luck - I was in Chicago with my dad and he had done some graduate work there, or something he never finished. But he said, “why don't you just go look at the University of Chicago,” which I really didn't know anything about. I had an interview, or met somebody, you know. And it was like, “oh, this is where I want to go.” They read all the original source material. It was like - I didn't - that was it, you know. And I went there and basically died and thought I'd gone to heaven. It was my world. My people. But they didn't have anything about film. And I loved movies. I used to go to the movies. I got interested in foreign films early on - people like Bergman and British comedies I was interested in. And you know I liked movies. But the University of Chicago was very intellectual at that - it still is.

JANAE CUMMINGS: It still is, yeah.

GORDON QUINN: But at that time, God forbid you should do anything there with your hands. There was no film production. But there was Doc Films. And so, through Doc Films I started to see documentaries, although they were mostly interested in the auteur theory and Howard Hawks and that stuff, which I was also interested in. But I saw a film that Ricky Leacock and Joyce Chopra had done, Happy Mother's Day. And it was like, “oh, wow. That's what I want to do.” Cinéma Vérité, direct cinema, filming reality as it unfolds; and a story that you think is going one place and then go someplace else. You just follow it where it goes. And then I saw A Chronicle of a Summer by Jean Rouch and I started to meet other people - Jerry Tamener, Stan Karter, these are the guys that - we started Kartemquin together. And we used to joke about someday if we'd have a film company, we'd call it Kartemquin, sounds like Potemkin, a really stupid idea. Don't ever do - if you're gonna start something, don't put three stupid names together. Not the way to do it. I had worked one summer for a production company in D.C. I was actually in - I hadn't gotten a job with - I can't remember his name - Davis Guggenheim's father. They used to be based in Saint Louis and I'd gone down there and interviewed for a job and didn't get it. So, I went off to the West and wound up as a lifeguard at a municipal swimming pool. I won't digress into that story. But my dad calls me and says, “you know, this production company in D.C. called and they have a job for you.” So, I started working in film. That guy loaned me a camera that I took back to the university. And for the public television station I started shooting for this - it was called Student Journal. And it was on public TV. And I'd do the little film stories and roll ends and stuff like that. That's sort of what I got interested in. I wrote my B.A. paper on Cinéma Vérité in a democracy. I started reading John Dewey in some of the philosophy courses I was taking. And I studied the liberal arts. I studied literature and history and social science. And that's what I use every day in my work. You know, I - they love me at liberal arts colleges because they always - filmmakers go, “where do you go to film school?” I didn't go to film school. I learned basically as an apprentice. But I got out of school and started working in the industry. Even - I was working before I graduated, really, for various people - Mike Shea - and I learned to edit from Howard Alk. And so, I learned on the job. I remember - this is when I was living on Fifty-fourth Place, and I was walking down the alley to get back to where I was living - and I'm thinking to myself, “yeah, this is what I want to do. If I could just shoot industrials, wouldn't that be a great career?” I didn't have these vast ambitions, and yet with these other guys we would fantasize about making Vérité films, making real documentaries and stuff. So, the seed was there. And then I'd written this B.A. paper which had a certain vision for what film could be and the role that it could play in our democracy. And I went and worked in New York for a couple of years on some big music films and stuff like that. And the opportunity to make our own film, Tamener gives me a call and he says, “this old age home is going to let us make a film there and I've got some money raised.” You know, I think we made a dollar an hour or something doing it, but we made our first film, Home for Life, and started Kartemquin.

JANAE CUMMINGS: I want to backtrack a little bit to growing up in Virginia segregated schools. And you mentioned being an outsider and kind of having that outside point of view, was this something that your parents instilled in you?

GORDON QUINN: Indirectly, yes. They'd both grown up in Boston. So they were, you know, pro integration. This was in the 1950s. And many years later - I didn't know this at the time - but when I was 14 or 15, I found out my father had actually been in the Communist Party sort of before I was born. He left, I think, around the Hitler-Stalin pact, right around then, you know, when that came out. He was a leftist, you know, or a progressive kind of liberal. And my mother was sort of conservative. But on things like that, that was certainly the ethos in our family. I think I was an outsider for a lot of reasons in high school. I was interested in books and not sports. I was a pretty intellectual kid. I remember there was a teacher who had an after-school thing, we…would go to his house, actually in the evening, I think. A great books thing. We'd be reading and great books and we'd talk about it in a small group, like six or seven of us. And I was just like, “whoa, this is who I am.” But in school, you know, it's a big suburban high school. And I do remember being shocked. Some of the teachers knew that integration was coming. In fact, Virginia fought it all the way till '62 or '63. So, I graduated in ‘60 and it never got there. But they were trying to get it ready. I remember we took a field trip with the physics class to Hoffman-Boston, the black school. And it was like they didn't even have running water. They had to go into the bathroom to get their water. And you could really see the differences. But the other thing that I took away from segregated schools, it was - segregation was about, on the whole East Coast - you know, it's different in other parts of the country - on the East Coast, it's about black people, period. The president of our senior class and the captain of the football team was Jim Hamasaki. The kid in front of me in Spanish class was from Venezuela. What he was doing in first year Spanish, I never quite - I mean, he got a C. I flunked. But, you know, it was like…everyone was white except for African-Americans. So, that influenced my thinking about equality and about what the big contradictions in American society are.

(SOUNDBITE OF OAKTREE’S "LATE BLOOMER")

AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest is Gordon Quinn, artistic director and founding member of Kartemquin Films, a Chicago based non-profit organization with a 50-year history of producing acclaimed documentaries. Gordon Quinn is speaking with Janae Cummings.

JANAE CUMMINGS: You go from a place where Jim Crow is alive and well…

GORDON QUINN: …Yeah.

JANAE CUMMINGS: …You go to Chicago, which is becoming a tinderbox for unrest for civil rights movement, that kind of thing. What was that like? I mean, you've said that it was kind of like a breath of fresh air, or a life-changing thing...

GORDON QUINN: Yeah, and it certainly was the intellectual environment. The University of Chicago is really what I was referring to. And it was a place where, yeah, I got involved in some early civil rights struggles and stuff like that. And that's why we were tipped off about the boycott, because we were the film people and the people organizing that knew us. And they said hey, this is historic. You guy got to find a way to record it…

JANAE CUMMINGS: …And we're talking about the Chicago school boycott.

GORDON QUINN: …Yeah, the great 1963 school boycott. Yeah, there was a lot happening in Chicago, but the people who were cool also cared about civil rights. It was a very different kind of environment to walk into, and there was a lot of segregation. And I remember being struck by the fact that in my class at the University of Chicago there were two black students in the whole class - one guy and one woman. That was it. I didn't know any black people my own age. None when I was growing up. And I somehow thought that would be different in college. And it was a bit different. And, certainly, around the civil rights stuff, you would meet people. They weren't all in the university, but some of them were. The other thing that was happening was - it was a whole music scene in blues. This is when Butterfield was at the University of Chicago, the Butterfield Blues Band, which was an interracial band. I knew some of them, too. So...

JANAE CUMMINGS: That's really cool.

GORDON QUINN: Yeah. And these were - you know, the people in his band weren't - whites were college students, often, but the drummer and the bass player and - you know, they were from South Side.

JANAE CUMMINGS: You talked about getting tipped off to go film the boycott. More than 250,000 students weren't in school that day. They stayed out of school. Tens of thousands of people marched on the Chicago Board of Education offices downtown. What was that day like?

GORDON QUINN: You know, it's funny now that I just finished the film, of course, I've been looking at all this stuff. So, it's hard for me to remember what I actually remember and what I see in the footage…

JANAE CUMMINGS: …sure…

GORDON QUINN: …but we had a whole team of people. Mike Shea, who I would - I had met this guy, had been an old still photographer. He'd done some work for Life, and he'd worked a lot for Ebony. And I wound up in a couple of years later working for him. But he was wanting to get into film, and I'd met him, and he had a film camera. And so, he was on it, Tamener, and Stan Karter were on it. And a woman, Carol Brightman, who was later to become my girlfriend, you know, is doing sound. And I see her in the footage - just the back of her blonde head. We heard about this. We knew it had to be filmed. We had a great, big, gigantic sync sound camera that probably weighed 50, 80 pounds. We had been hired to do an interview for the university with Madame Pandit, who was head of UNESCO at that time, I believe. And I just kept this gigantic camera. So, we also had a sync sound camera, which were much rarer in those days. I had that big camera in a Volkswagen van. All of the sync sound that you see in the film was filmed out the door of that van. We covered the march, and we had this incredible footage. It was very little in the news media archives, you know? And then, all these years later, when no one else made the film, I realized, OK, the 50th anniversary was approaching. And so, we started working on the film. I got it digitized so we could edit in modern equipment, and stuff. We don't even have film editing equipment anymore. And we had this website where we put up 500 still photographs. Like Facebook, you could click on somebody's face and leave them that, you know, this is me, or… and so, we tracked down people who had been in our footage. And I think my original idea for the film was that I wanted to interview people who were - you know, 50 years later they've had a whole life. What did it mean to them to have stood up for themselves in that way? How important was that experience to them? What are the consequences in their lives today? But it also deals with history. And I wanted to make sure that we didn't, you know, screw it up in terms of history. So, Tracy Matthews joined our team. And she wound up doing most of the interviews. Tracy is a historian, so she was like, “yeah, but we also need to talk about how they pulled this off. How did they organize it? How did the leadership make it happen?” And so, the film really kind of straddles those two visions and approaches. And it was a really important change that I think makes the film much more valuable.

JANAE CUMMINGS: And you need to speak to the people who had protested so many years ago to make those connections. Is that...

GORDON QUINN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then we interviewed them. We found people and interviewed them. And then we interviewed it with the archival footage. And also, we had to give the context of the time. So, all within a half an hour, we give a sense of segregation in Chicago and what happened to the schools over the years, why - here we are 50 years later, and they're almost as segregated as they were when we started. The only difference is then the school system was 50% white. Now it's 8% white. And we deal with all of that in the film. But we wanted to keep it a half an hour so we can get it into the schools. And it also is framed by the modern protests that happen around the school closings in 2013 where they closed 50 schools all at once. And there were huge protests.

JANAE CUMMINGS: You said a few moments ago that you had all this footage and no one had made the film. Does that mean you tried to sell this footage?

GORDON QUINN: …um…

JANAE CUMMINGS: …and no one would buy it?

GORDON QUINN: No one in the U.S. bought it at the time. We kind of have a history for doing things that nobody wants to buy at the time. And then - but we did sell it to the Canadians. Someone connected with - the CBC did buy a copy of the footage and they used it. I think they - part of it was used in a documentary they were making about Saul Alinsky. And so, it was used in that film. And I think it also touched on the civil rights movement in the U.S. And…I remember - this is just a digression, but I gather you guys don't care about digressions - we had started this thing called The Film Workshop, I think we called it. Can't remember exactly. But it was a student, you know, kind of an offshoot of Doc Films. And Doc Films was about showing films and criticizing films. And this was about making films. You know, we had some equipment. We got a little space that the university gave us. And we had this kind of film workshop thing. We sold this footage to the Canadians. However, the finances were being handled- it was under this radio TV entity where we had also recorded the interview with Madame Pandit, and the money’s not coming. The money is not coming. And it's like some real significant money. My memory is it's $5,000, which in those days was a lot of money. I might be wrong about that, but I think it was 5,000. And finally, a friend of ours who worked for this end, he says, “the guy who's the head of it has an issue with his budget. And he took your money. And they're lying to you.”

JANAE CUMMINGS: Wow.

GORDON QUINN: And we, like, created a big stink. And you know, it was just fortunate we had a friend there. So, I - it's funny. I just remembered that. And we were just, like, couldn't believe it, you know?

JANAE CUMMINGS: So, the Canadians bought the footage. And why didn't anyone in the States? Why weren't they interested? What was it about this footage that didn't resonate?

GORDON QUINN: You know, I think it was a little bit early for them to understand how important the civil rights movement in the North was. There was all this focus on the South. So, I think it was partly that. In Chicago, of course, it was fairly controversial so, you know, the stations there weren't really interested. But looking back, I think that it maybe had to do with that. Yeah, because it was just - this is what happened. There was this huge demonstration, and we had gotten up in buildings - before drones - but had shots of the huge crowd and everything, and the Freedom Schools, because a lot of the kids were in churches and stuff, in basements. They had activities for kids, and stuff like that.

JANAE CUMMINGS: So, the people you filmed this boycott this demonstration with, they helped you to form Kartemquin Films?

GORDON QUINN: Yeah, yeah. There were three guys out at the University of Chicago originally, Karter, Tamener, Quinn. Thus, our stupid name.

JANAE CUMMINGS: That's clever.

GORDON QUINN: And that was kind of the founding. And we had an early manifesto: cinematic social inquiry. And, you know, we have one published article, a pretty well-known book "Visual Anthropology." I don't think our essay is in there anymore, but for many years it was. And we fought about this or joked about it, really, more. And then I went off to New York and worked in the industry for a couple of years. And when I came back with this opportunity to make the film about the old age home, we sort of formed Kartemquin or that's where we date our founding from, 1966. One of our early visions was we were going to make films with professors at the university that would be, you know, about things that they were studying or looking at. And it never worked out. Never happened. And within, I think, the first year or two we had moved north into the basement of a building that we had a bunch of us, Jerry Blumenthal who - Jerry Blumenthal joined Kartemquin in that first year or two. And we weren't going to rename it Kartemquinthal.

JANAE CUMMINGS: (Laughter).

GORDON QUINN: But the other thing that was happening…we went from our early belief that if you held a mirror up to society, that would be enough to create social change. In today's world, it would be” well, if you just took Vérité footage of these Trump supporters and showed them what they looked like, they would change. At that time, I kind of believed that, naively. And when we finished Home For Life, we thought the film was going to start a national conversation about how we treat the elderly in our society. It didn't. It was a pretty successful film, but what it was used for was to improve old age homes. So, we saw the limitations. And it was also the '60s. Other people were coming around Kartemquin, these two women, Jennie Rohrer and Sue Davenport had started a film about the Chicago Maternity Center. And there was this group of women who were trying to save this home delivery service. So, you had African-American women who had always used it and had their babies at home. You had Hispanic women who were coming from Mexico who were like, “yeah, I want to have my baby at home.” And then you had these young, white, pretty educated women who wanted the privilege of having their baby at home. So, they were trying to save this center and were making a film about it. And we got involved with helping them. And other people came around. And within a year, we had moved. I mean, my roots were in John Dewey and what I had written about. And I still quote Dewey to this day. But, you know, we were reading Marx and Mao and Walter Benjamin. And, you know, we were - we had moved on into the '60s ethos. And, certainly by the end of the '60s, we were like a collective of 13 people. Half of the people came from film. And some had worked in film, some were studying and in school. Some had been in the Chicago versions of Newsreel. And the other half of the group had been union organizers, teachers, or still were. Many of them were still working in those. So, it was a mix of different kinds of people. And then, while we were making the film, we all saw: they're going to lose this fight. And we're not going to have the film done. You know, we thought the film could be a part of that struggle. But they're going to lose. And so, we really rethought the film and said what we have to do is make a film for people to fight the next fight, so they know what they're up against. They need to know who the enemy is. And the enemy and the surface here was the university and the medical that was going to shut it down. But the enemy was much bigger. It was all these corporate interests that profit from health care and that kind of thing. So, it became a very different kind of film. And we quickly evolved into the collective.

JANAE CUMMINGS: It sounds very much like an activist collective.

GORDON QUINN: It was. Sure. We were having endless meetings, structure and identity meetings, you know, to get our politics straight. And we were heavily influenced by the women's movement because there were a lot of women in the group. And they were involved in the Women's Liberation Union years later when the Chicago Women's Liberation unions sort of self-destruct it in a sectarian, you know, one of those ugly things. And we had the leaders of both factions in Kartemquin. We survived, but the Women's Union did not.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Wow.

GORDON QUINN: But - yeah, we were trying to change the world and saw that you couldn't just hold a mirror up. You had to deal with power relationships. You had to deal with other kinds of things. So, we've always had this strain of Vérité filmmaking and recording reality as it unfolds. But sometimes people will ask me, “why did Kartemquin survive?” And it's because we changed. We didn't keep making the same film. We'd look around and say, “well, we're in a different period of history here. Something different is going on, we have to think about that, what’s…”

JANAE CUMMINGS: …and evolve.

GORDON QUINN: …yeah, where do we belong? How do we engage with what's going on around us?” And so, you'll see our work changed over the years. When Hoop Dreams was such an enormous success, it brought us back to some of our Vérité roots. Hoop Dreams was also when Jerry and I were doing the Golub film, you know, these younger filmmakers were doing Hoop Dreams. Golub was very Vérité, too. But what we saw with Hoop Dreams, because by that time in a collective we were like, “how do we make media that can be in service to the movement? How can we help to get people into the streets, foster protest, give people an analysis to understand what they are up against and to be a part of that movement?” By the time Hoop Dreams came out, a lot of us were thinking about how do you really speak and move people who aren't sympathetic maybe to the people who your film is about or really don't care about social justice. And what we saw with Hoop Dreams is a huge audience saw it who would never watch a film about an inner-city family. They would never watch a film about a social problem.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Sure.

GORDON QUINN: But they watched Hoop Dreams because it was about coming of age and sports and family and drama. And, you know, I think a lot of people saw that movie. And because it's emotional, it opened them up a little bit, so we became much more interested in how can we do that, how can we make documentaries that draw people into the story on that emotional human level get them feeling something that maybe moves them a little bit.

JANAE CUMMINGS: I'm going to come back to Hoop Dreams because we can't not talk more in depth about that. But I'm very curious about how you choose your topics particularly when - you know, these are focusing on communities you're not in, communities you don't know. How do you find these subjects and explore them and document them?

GORDON QUINN: It's a really important question, and it's something we're all talking about now in our field and in our industry. One way that people phrase it is, “who gets to tell whose story?” And we've always thought about that, not necessarily in the way we talk about it now but it was always relevant. So, you know, our very first film was in an old age home. We were far from old. Now I'm that age, but back then I'm this 23-year-old kid. And I'll digress a little bit - because this is something I talk about when I talk about documentary ethics - that there is a role to be played between the academy and the field. It's something like documentary filmmaking. And Pat Aufderheide who's at American University and is an academic. She was one of the people who also broke open with Peter Jaszi, the whole fair use thing. But it's about 10 years ago. And she's saying, “how come you never talk about ethics?” And I'm like, “no, I talk about ethics all the time.” She says, “but you don't call it ethics.” And it was like, “oh, you're right.” And so now I call it what it is. And it really makes a difference in how people respond to it but also how I talk about it. So, one of the stories I tell about making Home for Life, there is this incredible scene in the middle of the film where the elderly woman has been put into the home kind of by her son and daughter in law. She's been living with him for 15 years. And they just can't keep taking care of her. And she's pretty physically OK. And it's her first night in the home. And it's a brutal scene. It goes on for eight minutes, which in screen time is an eternity in the longer version of the film. And all that's being talked about is laundry. They're looking through her laundry and, you know, through her bras. And, “Yeah, Ma, is this marked for the communal laundry in the home?” And I'm, like, shooting this thing and this is the scene. This is the heart of the film because they're treating her badly because they feel guilty. And you can see that. And back in the '60s when we were first showing the film, we had got a lot of pushback. People would say, “well, where's the expert explaining why they're doing that?” We don't need an expert. People are very sophisticated about - it's one thing we all do. We interpret human behavior. That's what we do as a human. You don't need someone to tell you that. Let the audience come to it. Let them figure it out. So, I'm shooting this scene and right in the middle of the scene the woman says, “I don't want to be in the movie anymore. It's too much. It's too…” You know. And the camera turns off. I'm shooting film. It's a double system. The audio keeps rolling. A sound guy is recording. Me as a 22 or 23-year-old explaining to this elderly 83-year-old woman, you know, “you're having a hard time adjusting to the home. We understand that but because you're sharing your story it's going to help other people and blah, blah, blah, blah.” I'm good at getting people to do what I want to. And she finally says, “OK, I'll be in the movie.” Camera turns back on. The scene continues as if nothing had happened. They go right back to dealing with the laundry. And my point in telling that story is that at 22 I didn't understand nor take responsibility for what I had just done. I have all the power. She probably thinks I work for the home, and she has no power. And that doesn't mean I couldn't have done the same thing. But if you do it and I don't understand what you've done, that's where ethics comes into. You have to think about these issues. You have to ask yourself the question. And it was only later that I began looking back. It's like, “oh, yeah, I really” - I was just like, “great, she's going to be in the movie.”

JANAE CUMMINGS: You said that one of the core values of Kartemquin is that when you go into a situation you just must observe what's happening there. Can you tell us what you mean by that?

GORDON QUINN: Well, I think it does have to do with that Vérité concept. And when we did a film about immigration about 20 years ago, a big television series public television series - I think it was seven hours, seven-part series, very powerful. One of the best things we ever did. And we did an enormous amount of research about immigration - file cabinet full of stuff - and worked with all these organizations. But then when you start making the movie, we put that aside and we watch and see what's happening. And one of the things - and it is a theme of the movie that we would see again and again and we'd set it up so that we would meet people. Before they got here, we'd meet people when they're still living in their home country because we wanted to see what they left behind. Mostly we thought it was so we do understand why they chose to leave. But we also, because of having done it that way, we started to see what they were leaving behind. And one of the powerful things that comes out in that film is that when you emigrate you're not thinking about where you are or where you're going. Your heart is back in the place you left. That's what's still consuming you. And we come at these people with all of these services and all this is what America is and what do you think of America. It's like they don't think anything of America. They're thinking about what they left behind. And so that was a very powerful moment. You have to watch and observe and let this story unfold before the camera. And, actually, what I love about documentary is you never know where you're going. There's no script. And I think it is important in our current series, America To Me, Steve James helmed with this incredible team that he put together. And it's going to be a 10-hour series on race and education in a Chicago suburban Oak Park. Do you know Oak Park?

JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.

GORDON QUINN: Yeah. So Oak Park, you know, one of the most integrated communities in the country, a really good school that people are sacrificing to get into. And it's failing its African-American students. The kids and their parents and the teachers - those are the foreground stories. But the school boards in there. It's just a terrific thing. But one of the students that he follows is this kid who's got some cognitive issues. Sweet kid, but, you know, the kind of kid who'd never been in a movie. But you stick with him and you stick with him. And there's the story there. You only get that by watching and taking the risks to say, “I don't know where this is going but there's something about this kid that I think could pay off.” And we've done that over the years, where there’ll be a character or will be somebody in our films who are just not the people who usually get cast. They're not necessarily the model citizens. And I think that's important, too. When you make a documentary, sometimes, that you go into a situation like a hospital or something and, you know, people come up to you and they're like on the staff. You know, “I want to be in the film.” I'm all - you know, and they know about. You know, they say, “I can really help you with it.” And often that's not the people I want. It's the person who's looking at me suspicious over there out of the corner of her eye. I don't trust these media people. That's probably the person who's got the real story that you want to follow.

(SOUNDBITE OF OAKTREE’S "AND LEAVE ME ALONE")

AARON CAIN: Gordon Quinn, Artistic Director and founding member of Kartemquin Films, in conversation with Janae Cummings. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Let's get back to Hoop Dreams. What drew you to this story?

GORDON QUINN: It was not me. It was a couple of tall guys who come into Chicago. Into Kartemquin. They had been in Carbondale. They go into film school, and they were basketball nuts. And their original vision was to do a film about street basketball and what it meant in young kids lives, the kind of joy of basketball. And I was like, “OK,” you know, “this is important.” And they were guys who - they're both white, but they had asked themselves, “who are we to be making this film about these inner-city kids?” I said, “yeah, I know it's - I'm interested. It's good project.” And we weren't even - that wasn't our model then. But it was like people come in the door, you talk to them you, see some synergy there, and it's like, “OK, let's see if we can work together on this.” And I said, “you probably need the African-American cameraman.” You know, I had some contacts. And I sent them out. And they came back with Peter Gilbert, who was already associated with Kartemquin and happen to have a camera, which was also really good, but white. But I looked at the three of them. It's like Peter is just as much of a basketball nut as they are. He's not quite as tall. When all of them in some way or another had some aspect of that dream, you know? And over the course of the four and a half years when they were shooting, you know? At various times one or the other and maybe not Peter but - you know, the other day I just - you know, I was really pretty good. You know, I might have had - I could've had a shot - you know? - which was just a total fantasy. So that was the common ground. And it quickly, I'd say within a few months, the film went from this film about street basketball to following these kids all the way through high school and watching the recruiting process and the role of basketball in their lives. And the other thing that really, like, I knew that they were the right people to make the film, they knew all about the dark side of recruiting high school kids to play basketball and all of the stuff that goes on. They didn't want to do an exposé. They all believe that basketball cuts both ways. There's a whole negative side, and there's a lot that these kids get from playing the game. And they didn't want to lose that. They didn't want to just see that one side. They wanted to deal with the contradictions that you see all through the film. But sometimes you do talk to somebody, you know, one way or another you'll say, “what makes you think you can tell these people’s story, or do you have the right to?” And they're, like, they don't even ask themselves the question. It's not like there's a right answer. But if you haven't asked the question, you're not ready.

JANAE CUMMINGS: One thing I think that fascinates me about Hoop Dreams, as much as I want to see Arthur and William succeed, it seemed more fitting that they didn't reach this dream, right? They are…

GORDON QUINN: Yeah.

JANAE CUMMINGS: …like so many people, they're normal people who are extraordinary for a time. And it faded for whatever reason. Do you find yourself rooting for the subjects of your films?

GORDON QUINN: Yes, we are rooting for our subjects but not necessarily to make it to the NBA. We're rooting for them to make it in terms of a life and winding up somewhere. And so, the fact that they don't make it, in some ways, makes it a better film. And the fact that they do make it to become who they are, to us, that's what we're rooting for. And - a really chilling story - Steve was talking to somebody at CPB in Washington. We were there for a series of meetings. And we’re pitching them the film. We've told him about it. We've sent him some written stuff, and the guy is like, “nah, I don't really think there's a story there. Now if something bad happens to one of those boys, then you have a story.” That was just like...

JANAE CUMMINGS: It's devastating.

GORDON QUINN: Chilling.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.

GORDON QUINN: And he was wrong. What's even more important, what made Hoop Dreams so successful and so powerful was that it was about hope that America can actually maybe come to terms with its problems. It wasn't, you know, the kid got shot or something like that. That's, to me, much more powerful. When we talk about it, literally, in the editing room, it's like, you know, “this isn't really working because that's kind of making this person look like a victim and that's not who they are. And that's not who they want to be.” You have to balance those kind of contradictions, and sometimes those stereotypes. We have characters who have plenty of things wrong with them that we expose. It's there. It's on the screen. But ultimately you want your audience to feel empathy for that person. I mean, the most challenging was when we did Stevie, which was the first film we did after Hoop Dreams. It's huge. We've been this enormous success, and everybody wants Hoop Dreams 2. What does Steve want to do -  and Steven Peters started it and then we all started working it, on because we couldn't raise any money. Like, I was shooting part of it. And it was down in Carbondale with this young boy that Steve had been a big brother to when he was student down there. He was this 8-year-old, very troubled - child abuse, you know, all of that - boy. Kind of loses touch with them. But they'd exchange Christmas cards. And Steve's going to make a short film about his experiences down there and reconnecting now with this 28-year-old very troubled young man. And while we're making the film, Stevie is arrested for a horrible crime. And there's a trial. It becomes a feature length documentary, a very different film from what we set out to make. And we struggled mightily with that film. We want our audience to feel empathetic for Stevie and at the same time hold him accountable for what he did. To hold that contradiction, you can care about this guy and what happens to them and that doesn't mean he's innocent or that you let him off the hook for what he did. Steve also is in the film. He gets drawn into his own movie and becomes a character. And there are people who will say to us, “well, you know, that Steve James, you know, he's exploiting this guy.” And, you know, and they have all these things and it's like, “yeah, we kind of know that because it's in the movie because we put it there so you could see it and have those feelings.”

JANAE CUMMINGS: Right.

GORDON QUINN: That's why it's there.

JANAE CUMMINGS: You talk about showing the films first to the subjects, to the families of participants. What is that process like? What do they think?

GORDON QUINN: Well, it's something that evolved over the years. And not all documentary filmmakers do this. It's just sort of something that we do. We'll tell them as we're building the relationship. Then we'll say, “look, you're going to see it before it's finished. It'll be late in the process, but we can still make changes. And we're really going to listen to you if you've got concerns, or it's something you don't want show, or that kind of thing.” But you're really going to listen to us. And we may have a real argument about something, you know? You might be saying, “take this out. It makes me look bad.” And we're saying, “look, if we can't see you when you're so down. You know, like in Hoop Dreams when the family's lights have been turned off. The arc of your story - you overcame that.” It's much more powerful. But we promised people we're going to show it to you. And with everyday people, we basically say, “you're going to have to listen to us. I'm telling you up front. I'm really going to try to convince you. But at the end of the day if I can't, we'll take it out. You have that power.” With people who have power in the world, it's a little different. I kind of reverse it. I did a film about Bill T. Jones, you know, kind of incredibly important choreographer and has his own dance troupe. You know, he's like a megastar. I kind of say, “Bill, you're going to see it before it's done and you're really going to be listened to.” But at the end of the day, we make that decision because he's a powerful person.

JANAE CUMMINGS: It really struck me in Hoop Dreams where the family gets the lights cut off. The father is M.I.A. after going to jail, and domestic violence, and drug use, and that kind of thing. And keeping that as part of their stories, you know, in the end, it was so vital.

GORDON QUINN: Yeah. And yet, we want the audience to know these people and to empathize with them. But we don't want him to feel sorry for them. They have agency. To me, the most powerful scene in the film is Sheila's graduation.

JANAE CUMMINGS: That was really moving.

GORDON QUINN: Yeah. Yeah. Gets me every time.

(SOUNDBITE OF OAKTREE’S "ENCOUNTER")

AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest is documentary filmmaker Gordon Quinn. He's speaking with Janae Cummings.

JANAE CUMMINGS: I'm curious about the evolution and platforms for documentaries. Now, we have Netflix. We have Amazon. There are streaming services that are picking up documentaries just left and right. It seems like a good thing that these stories are being seen, but are there drawbacks to this?

GORDON QUINN: There are, I think, you know, but we usually use platforms. We are thinking about maybe evolving to do more short work. We've done two series of shorts. You know, one called The School Project, which is around the closing of the 50 schools that we did with all the other media organizations in Chicago. We all got together and said, “hey, we're going to do these films. They're going to be on public television locally. We had partners, and we're going to have a public screening in different communities around the city with a public presentation.” They were just short 10-minute things, social media, all of that. And then we did another one more recently that Liz Karr did. She did eight short films about the consequences of Illinois having no budget for two years and what does it mean in people's lives, what does it mean that social service agencies can't deliver their services that their people aren't being paid. That, again, we had them up on social media, and that kind of thing. There are all these new platforms, and you have to figure it out and adapt. I mean, I still think public media is terribly important. And one of the reasons I think it's so important I've fought battles with them. And I've won. And I wouldn't have won that with a corporate company. But with public television, you can organize your community. You can organize a field. You can bring pressure to bear. And they have to listen to you on some level. And that makes them different. And it makes them more valuable to - there are a little sliver of the media landscape, public media. But they are an incredibly innovative sliver. In some ways, they keep the rest of it somewhat honest. I mean, I admit that it's drifted off into total insanity, not public media but the rest of...

JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.

GORDON QUINN: …you got FOX News, you got whatever. But I think it's an important part of it. And so, I am committed to fighting to preserve that sense that this is media that we as a democratic society, we think is important. We fund it. And they are accountable to us in a way that is not a marketplace way.

JANAE CUMMINGS: And you helped push an initiative, PBS Needs Indies. Is that right?

GORDON QUINN: Well, that's their - yeah, PBS Needs Indies. What was it? It was - well, we had our group was the Indie Caucus, and we formed very quickly when they tried to…Independent Lens and P.O.V. They were going to try to move them from their Monday night slot, where they had been building audience and getting more and more successful. And they were going to put them on Thursday night, which is reserved for the local stations to do their own thing. Would've been the kiss of death. And we just organized the field and rose up. And they had to kind of say, “oh,” you know, as bureaucracies do they say, “oh, well. No, no, no. We're just trying to make things better,” and blah, blah, blah. “But, OK, we'll have a listening tour all around the country.” And they had these meetings. And we had people organized to show up en masse. We had the one in Chicago. And all of this is - you know, you're thinking about how do you do a campaign, how do you win something. So, I got the MacArthur Foundation to loan us a room to have the pre-meeting with them, where they came in, where the actual negotiations in Chicago for what was going on. And I'm looking out the window and it's a blizzard. I mean, it's an absolute blizzard. And then we're going to the big public meeting where I want the hall filled, you know? And it's like - I mean, it's in Chicago. But the snow is going sideways. I'm like, “oh, nobody will be there.” And the woman actually from - the biggest wig from D.C. - didn't even make the meeting because her plane was canceled. And we go to the cultural center room. And the room is full. It is, like, full. And they saw that. And, basically, we won. You know, it may come up again, but we won. So, I think we have to remember it's not all about the marketplace. And some of these other platforms - I mean, I have - you know, I mentioned All the Queen's Horses. I don't know if you want to know that story.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Absolutely.

GORDON QUINN: So, this is a new film. Kelly Pope, the filmmaker, came out of our Diverse Voices and Docs program, which is for people of color. She is a forensic accountant and a professor at DePaul and had been using video to film people who had committed fraud, and things like that. Some of them were in prison. And so, we met her because we were giving some advice just about some basic stuff. But then she came into our program. And she starts working on this film about the biggest municipal fraud in the U.S., which took place in this teeny tiny town in Dixon, Illinois, where this woman had stolen virtually the entire town's budget. She worked for the municipality. She was, like, the treasurer and wrote all the checks and signed them, you know? Over a 20-year period, she sold $53 million and put it into her Quarter Horse empire, thus the name All the Queen's Horses. And Kelly's making a film about this. The woman had already been arrested, you know, so it's looking into the past and winding up in prison. But the film, it's a very different film from a lot of our films. It's not character driven. It's not about the psychology of the woman and why she did it. It's about how she did it. It's literally about accounting and the whistleblower who saw something wasn't right and went to the mayor and said, “I think this is not right.” And eventually they call the FBI in. And while we were making the film, Kelly would say, “oh, well, accounting is boring and nobody wants to hear about this.” And I was like, “no, accounting, that's the challenge. We have to make people see that this is really exciting and interesting.” And we use animation. And we do some other things. So, this is her first film, you know, and she thinks she's going to Sundance, you know, and I'm like, “this film is never going to get to Sundance.” All of the first-tier festivals turned her down. But she's very persistent. And she starts getting into all these second-tier festivals. She's winning prizes. They're loving it. There's a Fraud Film Festival. Who knew, you know?

JANAE CUMMINGS: Wow.

GORDON QUINN: And the horse people are picking - she was in an equine festival because they knew who this woman was. And so, she has quite a festival run. And then she gets into theaters. And it's playing in all these mid-sized, small-sized towns across the country, paid theatrical screenings. I went to one in Downers Grove. She was double booked. I think she had to go to Durham. So, I go to this screening in Downers Grove. I mean, it's like there's 700 people there, you know, big, old theater. Oh, and when it played in Dixon, I think that it's going to play in Dixon the actual town and...

JANAE CUMMINGS: Oh, where she was from.

GORDON QUINN: Yeah. And Kelly was like, “you're going with me. I'm not going there by myself.” I mean, when she - she would joke. She would go with Keith who's our cameraman we work with. He's African-American, and she's African-American. We just doubled the black population.

JANAE CUMMINGS: (Laughter).

GORDON QUINN: She was like, “whoa.” And in some ways, it also resonates with what we were talking about earlier because this is a white town and a white criminal and a black filmmaker.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Right. Well, that's a town that can turn on her.

GORDON QUINN: Yeah.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Because how dare you.

GORDON QUINN: Well, and there were people in the town who felt that where they - this is dirty laundry.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Sure.

GORDON QUINN: But actually, the screening was very - it was a good screening and a really good Q and A. And the thing got a little uncomfortable as people keep pressing, “weren't there other people involved in this?” They're looking for this conspiracy, you know, and who to blame.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Because how can one person steal $53 million.

GORDON QUINN: Yes. And they - but the film really lays it out and lays it out what was being done wrong and kind of why it happened. And you see that the bank was complicit. The auditors were complicit in - not criminal ways, but they wound up paying millions of dollars in a settlement because they didn't want to go to court and have all of this come out, you know, and how badly they had screwed up in terms of their professional responsibilities. Oh, and at the end of the story, which takes it back. So, in P.O.V., Independent Lens, they all turned it down. You know, public television didn't pick it up. And now Netflix has licensed it. And it's being seen all over the world on Netflix. And she's getting, like, an email or two a day from somebody,” oh, I saw your film on Netflix, I think you should come to my town. I'm going to see if I can find a way to bring you here. “And that's - to me, that was my dream for the film...

JANAE CUMMINGS: Sure.

GORDON QUINN: ...That is a film that every municipality in the country - it should play there. Citizens should see it and understand what they can do to keep from being victims of this kind of thing. And it also applies to any business or not for profit, too. You know, it's slightly different, but it's the same idea.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Gordon, you've had a magnificent career filled with many proud moments. I'm curious to know if there's anything you would do differently.

GORDON QUINN: I don't know. You know, I mean, we've certainly made lots of mistakes over the years. But if you don't make those mistakes, you don't grow. So, I don't know that I have a lot of regrets. You know, I mean, I think had a couple of crossroads. We actually made the right decision. So very early on when we were - began Kartemquin and we're looking around and seeing who's funding documentaries, well, it's in Boston. It's in New York. It's in Los Angeles. It's not in Chicago. And we thought about moving to one of those cities. We didn't really have the resources to move, but we thought it might be worth doing. And it was like, “no, we're going to stay here in the Midwest.” Stories need to come from all over the country. You know, I really have a commitment to regional filmmaking. And so that was one of those decisions where it was like I look back it's like that was a good decision. The decision that we made when Hoop Dreams made so much money because you don't pay documentary subjects. But after the fact, we cut the families in and the boys at the same level that the filmmakers were - life-changing money. And you know, it was a lot of money that they'd all signed releases, you know? But I think we all look back and say, “yeah, that was the right decision.” We never regretted it.

JANAE CUMMINGS: What's on the horizon for you and Kartemquin?

GORDON QUINN: Well, what we're about now, really, we've evolved again. You know, we – the…earlier there was these three guys with the dopey name and then we evolve into this collective. After the collective fell apart at the end of the '70s, there were a few of us still left around. Jerry Blumenthal and me and Jenny Rohrer for a long time. And we kept the place alive doing commercial and, you know, industrials and things like that. Always as the crew for somebody else. We never competed for that business. And that was, again, a kind of - let's not try to be that. We'll be the crew. We'll hone our skills. We'll acquire equipment, but we can keep focused on what we think is really important. And now we've evolved into a media arts center with a board. Years ago, I sort of converted it into a 501C3, not for profit. All the equipment and films and everything was given over to the not for profit. The only thing that they don't own is the building that has to do with the initial Kartemquin corporation, was the wrong kind of corporation. And so, there's no way to get the building out without being clobbered by taxes. But if I die, because now I bought Jerry out and so I own that corporation 100%. And when I go, it can go to Kartemquin and not take the tax hit. Things that are in the past are still there, but our real focus is on the next generation of young filmmakers. We had a couple of them here, you know, on our panel. And so, we have diverse voices. We work with other filmmakers when we're - we're always looking for people who have that passion, this is the film they have to make. Not the next career move, but this is just - this is the film that they have the fire in the belly for. And they want to collaborate because not everybody should collaborate and not everybody needs to collaborate. But we're a very collaborative kind of that's how we do things. And so, we're looking for people who kind of - you know, it's kind of like a courtship, we call it that. A period of meetings and, you know, seeing if this makes sense for us. And so, I think we think about the next generation of filmmakers and not just filmmakers but independent filmmakers understand what it means to be independent. So, it's not just about a career but it's about being truly independent and how to be a part of a field and to fight for your rights within your own field. You know, the advocacy things that we've done over the years or something that I really want to see the next generation of independent doc makers pick up and say, “yeah, we can change this field. We can fight for what we think is important. And we'll all…” Like, you were talking about all these new platforms, we have to figure that out and figure out where we fit into that to make it work for us. And what can we change, what's not changeable. You know, years ago, I was on a panel somewhere and somebody - it was about public television. What does public television really want? You know, I said, “wrong question. What's the story you want to tell and how do you make them understand that that's the story they need?” That's what's at the core of what I think the future has to be. We can't lose sight of that.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Gordon, thank you so much for this time today.

GORDON QUINN: Well, it's really nice talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OAKTREE’S "A LITTLE TENDERNESS")

 AARON CAIN: Gordon Quinn, artistic director and founding member of Kartemquin Films, a Chicago-based collaborative filmmaking community that has been producing acclaimed documentaries for 50 years. Gordon Quinn has been speaking with Janae Cummings. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.

MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website WFIU.org. Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.

Gordon Quinn (Aaron Cain, WFIU)

Gordon Quinn (Aaron Cain, WFIU)

Gordon Quinn is the Artistic Director and founding member of Kartemquin Films, and he has been making documentaries for over 50 years. He made his first film, Home for Life, in 1966, pointing him in the direction he would travel for the next four decades. His work is influenced by the cinéma vérité movement: creating films that investigate and critique society by documenting the lives of real people, letting events unfold as naturally as possible.

Through Kartemquin Films, Gordon Quinn has created a home for young filmmakers, where they can receive support as they make documentaries that deal with social issues. Quinn executive produces most projects at Kartemquin, including their best known film, Hoop Dreams, which won critical acclaim and several awards. The film follows two inner-city high school students from Chicago for five years as they try to become professional basketball players.

Other films Gordon Quinn has produced include A Good Man, about the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones; '63 Boycott, which features previously unseen archival footage of the 1963 Chicago Public Schools Boycott; and America to Me, which explores racial, economic and class issues in contemporary American education.

Gordon Quinn was in Bloomington in 2018 for Visible Evidence XXV, an international conference on documentary film and media, where he showcased the work of Kartemquin Films. While he was on the I.U. campus, he came to the WFIU studios for a conversation with Janae Cummings.

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