With great sadness and shock, we share the news that Kartemquin associate Bill Siegel, Director of the Academy Award-nominated The Weather Underground (2003) and Emmy Award-winning The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013), has passed away.
Bill was an erudite, passionate and intelligent activist and independent thinker as well as being a gifted filmmaker and cherished friend. He has been a valued member of the Kartemquin community since he first worked as a researcher on Hoop Dreams (1994). We will miss him greatly.
A project that Bill nurtured tirelessly for over two decades, The Trials of Muhammad Ali looked at the legendary boxer’s life outside the ring as he converted to Islam and fought to overturn the five-year prison sentence he received for refusing U.S. military service during the Vietnam War. The documentary world premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, and was met with great acclaim at festivals around the world before being released in theaters and being broadcast on PBS Independent Lens. The film won awards for its stunning creative use of archival footage from the International Documentary Association and FOCAL, and was nominated for Best Documentary by the NAACP, as well as winning an Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical - Long Form Documentary.
Bill and co-director Sam Green were Oscar-nominated in 2004 for the The Weather Underground, a groundbreaking portrait of the American radical organization "The Weathermen" that originally premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, and was selected for the Whitney Biennial.
For over 20 years Bill also worked at the Great Books Foundation, where he trained over 10,000 teachers in inquiry-based learning and offered consulting, video production and training services to schools, corporations, non-profits and community organizations across the country.
Our condolences and love go out to his two children, Johanna and Louis, and his former spouse, Lauren. Details on his memorial and an obituary can be found here.
Remembrances of Bill Siegel:
From Gordon Quinn, Executive Producer of The Trials of Muhammad Ali:
Bill was an exceptional filmmaker. And we were proud to work with him on his masterpiece The Trials of Muhammad Ali. He took on important stories that no one else was telling, and even his current project about the United States Information Agency and the Voice of America was about to become of critical importance to issues coming to the surface today. This is a huge loss to our community.
From Rachel Pikelny, Producer of The Trials of Muhammad Ali:
There was no one quite like Bill. He was a cool cat with a huge heart and brilliant brain. He really saw people and wanted to know them. He was honestly, endlessly curious. Like most great filmmakers, he was stubborn and opinionated but collaborative, always willing to listen to the other side, especially over a solid meal.
He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history and politics and he cared deeply about justice. That's how he saw his role as a filmmaker - to tell great stories, yes, but mostly to reframe history and expose injustice.
Toward the end of the filmmaking process, Bill mused about how he saw Ali as a window into what it means to be a good human, and how making the film allowed him reflect on his own life. I wish I had the chance to tell Bill that I loved and respected him, and that he inspired so many people, from fellow filmmakers to students to those he would never meet. He will be greatly missed.
From Aaron Wickenden, Editor of The Trials of Muhammad Ali
To be in Bill’s orbit was to feel loved by his generous and compassionate spirit. His care for the people around him came naturally. His presence was always festive and filled with laughter. There is a photo of him that I love which is from the afternoon we filmed Khalilah Ali near the lakefront in Chicago. It started drizzling, we kept filming, and then it started pouring and we had to retreat to the car with Khalilah and a mountain of gear. I looked back at Bill and he had this huge goofy grin on his face. Even though we were soaked and the shoot was a total bust he was enjoying this surreal moment of us all running together in the rain like kids.
What I’m remembering most today are not the times we spent working in the editing room but all moments we shared together as friends. Bill was the only director I’ve ever worked for who would say in the middle of the workday - “let’s go for a walk.” We would head out from Kartemquin and pretty quickly the conversation would move from the film to talking about our lives and before you knew it an hour or so had gone by. Later on, those soulful walks turned into Bill leaving the most epic voicemails. The kind of voicemails you play for a friend because they were so incredibly funny and thoughtful. I just listened to them again tonight as I think about Bill and so many end with him saying “I love you.” I’ll really miss him.
From Justine Nagan, Executive Producer of The Trials of Muhammad Ali
Bill was a bright spirit, quick to laugh and passionate about filmmaking, righteous work and Muhammad Ali. He loved his kids and his Finnish heritage and we were both proud Minnesotans. Making a film with someone is always a journey and some are tougher than others. Making The Trials of Muhammad Ali was a roller coaster for many reasons, but ultimately it is one of the films I’m most proud of being associated with. Both because of the destination and the collaboration it took to get there. It’s a masterpiece of a film and watching it at the Ali Center in Louisville brought me goosebumps then, and brings me goosebumps now. People talk about Kartemquin being a family- and sometimes it seems like lip service- but on days like today it feels like we are mourning a member of our family - together. Much love to all of his friends and family during this difficult time.
From Lois Vossen, Executive Producer of Independent Lens
Working with Bill was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences of my career. I was extremely fortunate to work with Bill during the production of two Independent Lens films, The Weather Underground (with Sam Green and Carrie Lozano) and The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Bill was humble so it’s worth noting that one was nominated for an Oscar and the other won an Emmy Award. We've been in production on his new film for the past few years, a project Bill felt would be his best film yet. I have no doubt that would have been true. We shared Minnesota roots, Midwest values, and a love of archival footage. He was an extraordinary person: thoughtful, kind, funny, smart, generous, hard-working and deeply committed to social justice. Last year he sent me his mother’s obituary and we talked for a long time about her legacy. Bill’s beautiful films will be a part of his shining legacy for decades to come. I wish we had had more time for more of them.
From Usama Alshaibi, Director of American Arab
I’m devastated to hear about the passing of my friend and documentary brother Bill Siegel.
Bill and I worked on films together and we met when I worked at the Chicago History Museum and was digitizing and finding archival footage for his (and Sam Green’s) monumental film The Weather Underground. Later I helped edit educational videos for him and we both simultaneously started making a documentary with Kartemquin films. Mine was American Arab and his was The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Bill was an incredible filmmaker and I learned so much from him.
Rest In Peace brother. I miss your laugh, your radiant eyes, and our days together in Chicago working on films and telling stories that needed to be told.
From Jeanie Kahnke, Muhammad Ali Center
Throughout Bill’s research of The Trials of Muhammad Ali he travelled to Louisville many times. But he also visited our city when he was “in the neighborhood”—even if that was 100 miles away—because he had made many friends here. I remember Bill as someone who made friends easily and who kept friends forever. His passion, patience, and precision for filmmaking was ever present when he screened The Trials of Muhammad Ali at the Ali Center in 2013. It was very important to him that the Alis saw his film. While Muhammad was unable to attend the screening that night, Bill did get his wish of sitting next to Lonnie Ali. He asked so little of us in return for the incredible opportunity that he gave us. The last time Bill was at the Muhammad Ali Center was in June of last year for the annual “I Am Ali” Festival, which marks the anniversary of Muhammad’s passing with a community wide celebration of his life.
It was Bill’s idea to take part in the Festival by showing the first-ever—and maybe only time—that Trials of Ali and When We Were Kings were shown back-to-back. He was very excited to be at the Ali Center again, and especially to have his longtime friend Leon Gast share this special evening with him. It is this memory that I will hold dear and close to me. On behalf of everyone at the Muhammad Ali Center, we are so sad for this loss, and our condolences go out to Bill’s family, Kartemquin colleagues, and his large circle of friends.
From Brit Hayford, Associate Producer of The Trials of Muhammad Ali
I met Bill Siegel in 2005. He was an adjunct faculty member that fall semester, teaching "Doc and Social Change" at Columbia College. It was a chance meeting that quite literally changed the course of my life. Our chance meeting felt a bit like destiny to me after Bill revealed himself to be the director of The Weather Underground the very film that landed me in that classroom to begin with.
Over the next decade, Bill's role in my life grew—he was my teacher, my mentor, my coworker, my friend. More than anyone else, his confidence in my abilities formed me into the professional I have become. I learned so much from him—from the silly things like how to sign off an email with heart, "More soon! Stay tuned! Be well!" to the more philosophical lessons that come when you recognize your mentor is only human.
Bill was a unique soul; all at once cerebral, brilliant, persevering, cool, playful, free spirited. I've found so much joy the past couple of days reading through old emails and listening to voicemails. He and I had been working closely on a new project over the past few years. When it came time for me to move on this past August, Bill wrote me a thoughtful and poetic goodbye letter. It's a difficult task to bring closure to a decade of friendship and collaboration, but of course that's the sort of thing Bill did so well. He wrote:
"We have traveled a long road together and seen each other through a lot of trials, tribulations, misery, triumph, excess, stress, joy and through it all have grown to be estimable comrades in our "Get Shit Done" voyage. It has been a thrill and pleasure to live, learn, work and grow alongside you. Most of all, I am grateful to you for everything you have contributed professionally and personally. I will always hold you dear in my heart."
The world has lost a world-class storyteller, and a brilliant thinker. Bill was a truly unique individual who lived and loved as passionately as anyone I've ever met.
Thank you for all the lessons my friend. My grief is deep, but I am comforted as I reflect on the time we shared. I will always hold you dear in my heart, Bill. All my best.
If you would like a remembrance to be added to this page, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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In memory of Bill, here are some of our favorite interviews with him, and a selection of photos:
"What we can all learn from Muhammad Ali's years in the wilderness"
- The Guardian, article written by Bill Siegel.
Local Director sheds anonymity with 'Weather'
- Chicago Tribune
Goodbye, Champ: A Final Tribute to Muhammad Ali with John Carlos, Bill Siegel, Bijan C. Bayne
- Edge of Sports Podcast hosted by Dave Zirin
The Trials of Muhammad Ali: Q&A with Bill Siegel
- Independent Lens
With a noted tradition of nurturing emerging talent and acting as a leading voice for independent media, Kartemquin is building on more than 50 years of history as Chicago’s documentary powerhouse.
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