Beacon in the Swamp

This essay originally appeared in the program booklet for the 29th Dallas VideoFest.

For the month of December, all work by Kartemquin Films is free to stream : https://www.kartemquin.com/news/watch-every-kartemquin-film-for-free-all-december-stream-them-all-for-1-year-for-50

Cinema began as documentary : Muybridge’s horse, Edison’s sneeze, The Lumiere Brothers’ train. They all transcribed mundane phenomena onto celluloid via radical technologies, introducing a new kind of wonder to the world. Nearly a century and a half later, the cinema is in a delicate state. Although it could also be said that the cinema perpetually exists in delicacy, as echoed by Louis Lumiere’s declaration in 1895 : “the cinema is an invention without a future”.

In these times, moving-images bombard an eye within its first few morning blinks. Cinema attendance is on a seemingly irreversible decline, as the consumption of movies has evolved in ways inconceivable generations prior, away from the movie houses. There is no need to seek an image, the image will come to you. Young eyes are often ill-equipped to critically evaluate moving-images that dazzle before them in ultra high definition, to discern reality from a construction of reality. These days, people make their own films, about their own lives, in real time, that beam directly to the phones of friends and strangers, films that often disappear within twenty four hours and leave no (visible) record of having ever existed, as is their intent.

News industries have been forced to adjust to the rapid evolution of consumption, or else risk extinction. Inbetween the most esteemed newspaper columns, sponsored content known as ‘native advertisements’ live. They are intended to be consumed as journalism, to blend into the platform seamlessly,  resulting in a massive flood of images whose immediate goal is to sell, or sway, under the guise of news and documentary. In this swamp of content, how do we, as a viewership, declare what’s worth watching and what isn’t?  

Today, all images exist on an even plane. This even plane is essential for the full, still distant, democratization of filmmaking but for now acts like a forest fire beyond control, which begs the question : Whose role is it to shape the wildfire and chart the fresh ash?

Kartemquin Films was founded in 1966 by Chicagoan college filmmakers amidst national unrest. Emerging a generation after the pioneering work of Richard Leacock, Robert Drew, and the Maysles brothers, a primary goal of the filmmaking collective is to confront social maladies through documentary cinema.  By “reflecting life back at itself”, their aim is to motivate social change through the stories of everyday people, told with an approach that illuminates dimensions of the issues often buried by traditional news media. For an individual to see slivers of themselves in the jovial face of a nun, in a boy navigating his basketball dreams, or in the trek of a twenty first century immigrant, is to essentially expand the definition of what it means to be human. The work of Kartemquin Films enables viewers to sit with the paradoxes, ambiguities, and disorientations that constitute the core of sociopolitical problems. By framing national issues within the lives of ordinary individuals a deeper consideration is felt by viewers for other people far away from their own experience. Empathy drives the work at Kartemquin Films, whose work is made with a level of integrity and transparency absent from most media. Good documentaries invite accountability, scrutiny, and engagement, they ask viewers to accompany filmmakers as they engage with complex problems that hold no clear answers. For fifty years, Kartemquin Films has made documentaries that paint a portrait of America as seen by artists who care deeply for their subjects and follow the story wherever it goes.

The wonder born from moving-images is as present as ever, but is easily corrupted by those that seek not to engage, but to sell, or contain, under the costume of convention. Corporate news giants have deemed irrelevant the evanescent moments of life that shape our experiences. Make no mistake, these practices and willful omissions are not benign,  they encourage division and have real impact on the direction of communities and on the direction of nations. There are not enough incentives for students of today to aspire to make films outside of this system, which is precisely why Kartemquin Films, and organizations alike, are crucial for the continuation of nonfiction filmmaking, the acceleration of social change , and for the assurance that the Lumiere locomotive will roll towards new centuries. Kartemquin Films is a beacon in the swamp.