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Deep Focus

For 50 years, Kartemquin Films has looked hard at the world around us.

"Hoop Dreams"

Long before Bowling for Columbine and Super Size Me made it to multiplexes across the country, there was Hoop Dreams. Released in 1994, the film followed two NBA-ambitious teens from the city whose hopes rise and fall when they’re offered the opportunity to train under a high school coach whose proteges include Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. Produced by Chicago’s Kartemquin Films, the picture—the highest-grossing documentary of the day—proved that starless storytelling can be as captivating as anything Hollywood creates. And Kartemquin itself has proved there’s longevity to truth-telling as well: The scrappy company is marking its 50th anniversary of focusing on the real world.

Serious cinema is never an easy sell. One of Kartemquin’s early efforts was Thumbs Down, about a youth group holding an anti-war rally at its conservative Chicago church. “We opened it at the old 3 Penny Cinema,” recalls Kartemquin co-founder Gordon Quinn. “It was kind of disastrous. Very few people came. But certainly a film like Hoop Dreams changed things. And new technologies: During the 50th anniversary year, we’re streaming one of our films for free each week on our website.” 

Working with various directors, Kartemquin has shepherded dozens of projects on a range of subjects, from poverty and women’s health to studies of choreographer Bill T. Jones and film critic Roger Ebert (Life Itself). They don’t always turn out as the filmmakers expected. When director Steve James was documenting his reconnection with the boy he’d mentored as a Big Brother, the now-adult male was arrested for molesting his niece. Clearly, Kartemquin is not in the business of producing pass-the-popcorn fare. Still, there is often a celebratory dimension to the work.

“The most exciting story, if not treated with the right character development and the natural unfolding of the human drama, is not going be any good,” says Betsy Steinberg, the organization’s executive director and former managing director of the Illinois Film Office. “Kartemquin is masterful at telling stories in a way that you can’t look away from the screen.” 50th anniversary gala dinner and Milestones live event, June 24, 5pm, tickets $500, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St., 773.472.4366