By Elliot Greenberger
In commemoration of their 30th anniversary, the MacArthur Foundation has commissioned Kartemquin to produce three short films on their key funding areas: Affordable Housing, the New Communities Program, and the Digital Media and Learning Initiative. “Foundations need to be more aggressive about communicating who they are and what they do,” says Gordon Quinn, President and Founding Member of Kartemquin Films. “These films are an opportunity for MacArthur to show the consequences of their funding—how the effects of these programs play out in people’s lives.”
With other staff members tied up on a slew of other projects, Kartemquin brought on freelance producer and journalist Julie Englander to help shape the three films. What interests her about this project is not only learning something new and working with the Kartemquin staff, but also the different approaches that will be necessary to produce each of the three short films. “We’re figuring out how to tell the stories of these programs by really listening to MacArthur and the subjects of the films who are working to change lives and communities,” she says.
Gordon believes that these kinds of stories are amongst the most challenging to tell. “It’s easy to tell an inspiring story about a non-profit organization coming in and helping people live happier lives,” he says, “but the challenge here is how to tell stories about these organizations in a way that is useful to the people who do this kind of work.”
Almost 20 years ago Kartemquin was contacted by MacArthur to create a similar type of program called Grassroots Chicago to be shown to foundations gathering in Chicago for the Council on Foundations Conference. Steve James, who was Directing Hoop Dreams at Kartemquin at the time, was hired to direct the project with Gordon and Jerry Blumenthal producing. During production, Woody Wickham of MacArthur became aware of Hoop Dreams and Kartemquin’s struggle to procure funding. Gordon says MacArthur became the “save-our-ass funders” who bailed them out and helped make the film a success.
A few years later, Gordon received a research grant from MacArthur to find out what kind of a TV series would appeal to people who worked and participated in the not-for-profit, grassroots, and community sectors of our society. The research resulted in a concept for a TV series based on some of the ideas that came out of making Grassroots Chicago. Kartemquin went on to raise funding from ITVS for a pilot and Kartemquin Associate Jenny Rohrer produced two versions titled Grassroots Journal and Community Works TV.
As the synthesized guitar wails in the background, the narrator starts to speak: “Across America, people like you are solving problems. Grassroots Journal connects you to them and what they are doing.” Moments later, hosts Paul Martin DuBois and Frances Moore Lappe introduce themselves on an in-studio set designed to look like a community organizer’s paradise: exposed brick, file cabinets, and a round discussion table.
Gordon will be the first to tell you the final product didn’t come out as well as he had hoped, and the series was never funded, but Gordon still believes the idea is sound and hopes someday to rework it, possibly for the web.
While Kartemquin is a community of deliberate filmmakers who often spend years constructing their films, the current MacArthur project is a different sort of model. For the first of the three newly commissioned films, Julie Englander and director Peter Gilbert were given just five weeks for production. They walked around the office joking, “It’s done already.”
But MacArthur had a reason behind such a tight schedule. They wanted the film to be ready by November 7 to premiere at a conference in Washington D.C. called “Window of Opportunity,” organized by the Corporation for Enterprise Development. The film would profile a MacArthur program called the Preservation Compact, an area initiative to encourage the preservation of affordable housing, whether that’s done by a government agency, a non-profit, or even a for-profit organization. Members of Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) and The Community Builders (the two organizations profiled in the film) would be on-hand, along with other people in the professional field who advocate for preservation. It was MacArthur’s wish that the films would be used as a tool to stimulate discussion among the participants.
“We made the first film to communicate two things,” explains Julie, “one: the importance of preserving this kind of housing, two: to provide information about how two particular organizations succeeded in this goal.”
The second film, which will be completed in early 2008, covers the New Communities Program. Julie says, “It’s a Chicago program that’s getting a lot of attention nation-wide. It’s a holistic approach to community organizing and development, run by the Local Initiative Support Corporation.”
In order to make the films more effective, Gordon believes they should be seen as “trigger films.” “You don’t have the answer in the film,” he says. “You leave it out intentionally so that the audience can figure it out on their own.”