Local documentarians promote social change

Chicago's vibrant documentary film community takes on the issues that shape our lives

January 15, 2013

Kartemquin Films has some big plans for 2013. 

The Chicago-based independent film company has an impressive list of documentaries slated for the new year: stories that map the diverse breadth of the human condition.
 
Films in progress include Almost There (the portrait of a disabled artist obsessively documenting his own life), American Arab (in which Iraqi-American filmmaker and former Vocalo host Usama Alshaibi shares his personal experiences with racism in a post-9/11 world) and On Beauty (a chronicle of three physically atypical women and their plans to change society’s definition of of the word “beautiful.”)
 
If you haven't heard the name Kartemquin before, perhaps you remember two of the studio’s biggest success stories. In 1994, Hoop Dreams received the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win every major critic's prize in the following year. This heartwarming tale of two inner-city basketball players became the highest grossing documentary at that time and one of the highest rated documentaries ever broadcast on PBS.
 
More recently, Kartemquin released The Interrupters: a stirring film about Chicago’s “violence interrupters” that won Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2011.
 

Director Steve James helmed both of these projects, and won a Director’s Guild of America Award for his work on Hoop Dreams. James’ next film in development with Kartemquin is Life Itself, based on Roger Ebert's memoir of the same name. Generation Food, a documentary about the innovative efforts and obstacles to fixing the global food crisis, is scheduled for 2014. 

While Kartemquin is the documentary film giant in Chicago, other local filmmakers also deserve praise for their raw talent and tireless dedication to social change. 

During Chicago Ideas Week last October, video journalist Jigar Mehta introduced the idea of "Crowdsourced Documentary Filmmaking" as the means for creating his latest project 18 Days in Egypt.

He and interaction designer Yasmin Elayet enabled participants to chronicle the Egyptian Revolution through their own voices: uploading real-life footage, tweets and Facebook status updates. This collaborative method not only inspires filmmakers to work together en tandem, but also encourages audiences to take a more active role in collectively re-examining their connections to the world and to each other. 

For those wishing to get more involved in our city's thriving documentary film scene, Chicago Filmmakers is a great place to start. This 37-year-old media arts organization holds workshops, screenings and seminars to foster our ever-growing independent film community, and sponsors networking events for like-minded cinephiles as well. 

The next filmmaker meet up is tonight from 7 to 9 p.m., with director Dinesh Sabu discussing his first feature-length documentary Unbroken Glass. If you want to learn more about the industry, connect with other filmmakers or find inspiration for your own work-in-progress, opportunities like this one should not be missed. 

Follow Leah on Twitter @leahkpickett