IDA Interview with Gordon Quinn about Career Achievement Award

On December 5th, 2015, the International Documentary Association (IDA) will be presenting Gordon Quinn, Kartemquin founder and artistic director, with the prestigious Career Achievement Award.

In a recent interview with IDA’s Peter Kurie, Quinn reflected not only on the past five decades within Kartemquin, but also on the years preceding its founding and the experiences that ignited his passion for documentary, fair use and public media.

Although narrative pieces initially drew him to film, Quinn was sold on documentary as a University of Chicago student after he watched Ricky Leacock and Joyce Chopra’s Happy Mother’s Day.

“As soon as I saw that, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Quinn said. “I started paying more and more attention to documentaries.”

What began as a joke between friends to start a documentary company named Kartemquin (a name which was inspired by the famous Russian film Potemkin) became a reality in 1966. Our first film Home for Life followed two elderly people as they navigated their first few months in a nursing home.

“What I began to see with documentaries—particularly vérité and direct cinema—was the detail in the image, which was the detail of real life. As you started to structure something out of that detail, there were layers and layers of meaning,” Quinn said. “That’s what really excited me. Documentary takes you into all kinds of different things that you have to try to make sense of. And I really like that experience.”

Since its start, Kartemquin has widely utilized cinema vérité filmmaking to have viewers confront the world’s realities. The social landscape of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s during Kartemquin’s early years allowed us to truly see the role documentary filmmaking can have in our democracy.

“One of the things that a democracy needs is to find a way to create stories that can help different parts of a population understand each other, understand where people are coming from, what they're living with, that kind of thing,” Quinn said. “If you get people emotionally connected to your story, then you have the chance of opening them up a little bit, getting them to pay attention to somebody who maybe doesn’t look like them, or someone they think they’re not sympathetic with.”

As time went on and Kartemquin continued on its path to becoming a social issue documentary power house, it gained huge success and recognition with many films including Hoop Dreams in 1994.

“It reached a lot of people who never would have watched a film about a social issue…” Quinn said. “But they watched Hoop Dreams because it was about coming of age; it was about basketball and sports and family life. And what we saw was that we were really good at doing something that was very hard to do, which is to reach those kinds of audiences.”

As Quinn gears up to fly to Los Angeles for the December 5th IDA Award Ceremony, all of us at Kartemquin prepare for our 50th anniversary in just a few months. It is honors and anniversaries like these that not only inspire reflection, but also inspire developing a vision for the future. Quinn said he can’t say what’s in store for filmmaking technology, but he hopes the core of documentary making will remain the same:

“It’s not the technology. It’s not the spectacle that’s important. What’s important is: What did it make you feel? That’s what I hope we’re going to be seeing. That’s what I hope we’ll continue to have in documentaries--- the core value of telling a story that moves people’s hearts.”

If you would like to purchase tickets to the IDA event and watch Quinn as he receives this prestigious Career Achievement Award, you can click here.

To watch some of Kartemquin’s early films, visit our Fandor page.

Below, watch a video essay made by Kevin B. Lee for Fandor based on an interview with Gordon Quinn: "The Art of Documentary: Kartemquin Films". Kevin spoke to Gordon about what defines Kartemquin’s special approach to filmmaking, which he sums up with three main points: story, craft and ethics.