a young Black man and older white man stand in front of a wall of film awards
Yijun Pan for Chicago Reader

“Kartemquin to me is like a giant tree in the middle of the documentary world,” says Amir George. “I want to just keep watering that tree and help it grow and expand.”

It’s a gray Chicago day when George—a local filmmaker and programmer who was recently appointed the new artistic director of Kartemquin Films—makes this verdurous proclamation at the offices of the storied nonprofit documentary film organization. Inside, however, is aflush with color, from the array of movie posters decorating the walls of the stairwell to the enviable assemblage of memorabilia that adorns the workplace. 

In the washroom, for example, there’s this framed quote from Britney Spears: “Sundance is weird. The movies are weird. You actually have to think about them when you watch them.” 

Less humorously but much more impressively, the six Emmy Awards that Kartemquin has won over the years are collected atop a shelf (to say nothing of the four Academy Award nominations their films have garnered), while Camera #1 peers out through French doors from an adjoining office. 

This was the camera used by the early Kartemquin filmmakers to shoot their very first films, like their founding endeavor Home for Life (1967), following two retirees in their first months at an old-age home; and Inquiring Nuns (1968), in which Kartemquin filmmakers Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner document two nuns who they conscript to go around Chicago asking people if they’re happy, à la Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer

Upon hearing George’s remark, Quinn points to a robust topiary dominating the interview tableau. 

“My parents sent us some plants for this building [in 1971],” he tells us, “and this is a remnant of that plant. It’s the same tree that’s been watered all these years.” 

Quinn founded Kartemquin in 1966 along with fellow University of Chicago graduates Stan Karter and Jerry Temaner (parts of each of their surnames make up the organization’s name), and until just recently, he served as its longtime artistic director. He has been the most consistently integral figure in its over 50-year history.

“We had this idea about how documentary film, particularly vérité documentary film, could play a role in democracy,” he says, referring to the mode of nonfiction filmmaking distinct for its unaffected and often low-budget qualities. “I think we had some naive ideas about holding a mirror up to society, and if you did that, people would change.”

Though it’s difficult to identify when a piece of art accomplishes that, Kartemquin has inarguably succeeded in the herculean task of reflecting society back on itself with such films as: Trick Bag (1974), in which community members from factory workers to those involved in gangs discuss various forms of oppression; Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal’s The Last Pullman Car (1983), about the closing of the Pullman-Standard Passenger Car Works in Chicago (the last factory in America to manufacture subway and railroad passenger cars) and the long fight by the United Steel Workers Local 1834 to try to prevent it; Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert’s Hoop Dreams (1994), which centers on two Chicago-based high school students with aspirations of playing pro basketball (Roger Ebert called it “[t]he great American documentary”); and, most recently, films such as Bing Liu’s wildly successful Minding the Gap (2018) and Jiayan “Jenny” Shi’s true-crime adjacent breakout Finding Yingying (2020).

“I was about seven years old when my brother brought home Hoop Dreams,” George, a native Chicagoan, recounts of his earliest experience with the organization. “I was like, what, what is this? You know, you never saw just kids growing up in Chicago and a story about them as a film. That was something that really was inspiring. It’s a memory I haven’t forgotten.” 

A local entity in his own right, George is an accomplished filmmaker and co-curator of Black Radical Imagination, a now-dormant annual touring short film series. He has recently programmed for the Chicago International Film Festival and True/False, a documentary film festival based in Columbia, Missouri. As artistic director he will work closely with executive director Betsy Leonard, who joined Kartemquin in 2021 after 29 years at Heartland Alliance.

“The opportunity to work for Kartemquin—I just saw that as building on the work I’ve been doing throughout the years,” George says. “To be in a more advanced position to serve the overall community in Chicago as well as abroad.”

About the decision to hire George, Quinn explains, “We really wanted someone we felt was going to help transform us into what the next iteration of Kartemquin would be.” He expands on how crucial the ideas of change and progress are to the organization’s success: “We’re over 50 years old. Why did we survive? Because we didn’t keep doing the same thing. We changed enormously over the years, both in our vision and our mission, and how we made our money.”

One thing on everyone’s mind is how Kartemquin can help filmmakers sustain themselves through their practice. For example, “The other thing that there’s a lot of interest in, that we’re looking at now, is what’s the next step for people who come out of Diverse Voices?” says Quinn (who will stay on as a senior advisor, though going part-time at the beginning of the new year), referring to the Diverse Voices in Docs mentorship and development program. Founded in 2013 and organized in collaboration with the Community Film Workshop of Chicago, the program specifically serves documentary filmmakers of color. The evolution of that program (in which George previously participated as a mentor) is but one of the many things that he hopes to continue expanding upon in his new role.

Kartemquin Films
1901 W. Wellington

“It’s definitely an ongoing thought process as I learn more about Kartemquin and about the films that we’re currently working on,” says George. “Growth is what I’m interested in. Growth within the community and beyond to the places that Kartemquin hasn’t been yet. Inviting new audiences to experience Kartemquin, building those audiences, and creating spaces for people to have access to films, to have access to learning more about filmmaking, and to becoming better filmmakers.”