Kartemquin’s Archive in Good Hands
“Our archive has been living in a storage facility for the past three decades, and now it’ll finally be moving somewhere where it’ll have professional care.”
Elise Schierbeek, archive associate at the award-winning, nonprofit Kartemquin Films, is celebrating the arrangement that the company, one of the leading American producers of social justice-related films, has struck with Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Since a collective of filmmakers founded the Chicago-based Kartemquin in 1966, it has produced more than 70 documentary films and television programs. They have ranged over many issues relating to social and economic justice in regards to health care, urban life, race, labor, immigration, gentrification, aging, and gender. They have won six Emmy Awards, three Peabody Awards, and four Academy Award nominations. The material that Kartemquin will place at The Film & Media Archive of the university library’s Special Collections includes 3,500 cans of film, more than 11,000 videotapes and 2,000 audio recordings, and 440 boxes of papers.
You’ll most likely have seen some of Kartemquin’s films: Hoop Dreams (1995), which won several major critics awards; The New Americans, a seven-hour series depicting immigrant families from five countries that won the 2004 International Documentary Association Best Limited Series Award; Vietnam, Long Time Coming (1998), which depicted a group of American and Vietnamese veterans, many with disabilities, on an 1,000-mile bicycle expedition through once war-torn Northern and Southern Vietnam.
There have been scores more.
The collection relating to them is vast, spanning more than 50 years of production in many video formats. Kartemquin’s holdings demonstrate the technological and aesthetic evolution in documentary production during that time, and the range of wear and tear that time inflicts.
Washington U’s Film & Media Archive seems a natural fit for the Kartemquin material; the FMA already holds documentary collections from Henry Hampton’s Blackside Inc., the William Miles Collection, the Jack Willis Collection, and more. The Archive was established in 2001 after the WU University Libraries acquired the collections of Blackside Inc., the largest African-American-owned film production company of its day.
Kartemquin conducted research from 2016 to 2018 to identify best-fit audiovisual archives in the Midwest region, Schierbeek said: “Washington University was on our radar because of their work with the Henry Hampton Collection Eyes on the Prize materials.”
In 2019, Gordon Quinn and Kartemquin archive staff visited Washington University Libraries’ Film & Media Archive (FMA) and Washington archivists visited Kartemquin to assess it collection. The courtship was a go. “There was synergy early on in the visits, in terms of ethos around access and community engagement, but also how their collections have material and formal kinship with ours,” Schierbeek said.
The match was not a great surprise: “Washington U had reached out to us in the past because of its affinity with our archive,” and the university’s film and media archive “had been on Kartemquin’s radar for a long time as it’s a wonderful collecting institution,” Schierbeek said.
Kartemquin’s collection is, over all, in good shape, thanks to diligent work over the course of the company’s operations, Schierbeek said. Good records exist about, for example, which reels hold camera master, which hold dupes, which are final masters.
Washington’s FMA is set to assess all of the films — running tests for vinegar syndrome, and so forth. The main issue with the collection is its enormous size. From Kartemquin’s establishment, its founders and subsequent producers have “always saved everything,” Schierbeek said. “They had an impulse that this was going to be a document of a time in the history of Chicago and in documentary filmmaking.” In addition, “we’ve always considered our archive to be a living one. Kartemquin will go on producing documentaries for years to come.”
With several productions under way, the pace of collecting won’t slow, and the thoroughness of preparing each project’s elements for archiving, from projects’ beginnings to culminations, will only increase.
For some time, specialists including Carolyn Faber, Kartemquin’s consulting archivist, have been working on various aspects of the archiving, helped along by grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. (Schierbeek came to Kartemquin after studying film preservation under Faber at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.)
Unsurprisingly, as Schierbeek put it, it has been hard for the organization to strike a balance between pragmatism and wanting to save everything. It has preserved its documentary filmmaking process by acquiring production elements and supporting materials such as original filmed interviews and outtakes, rare stock footage, photographs, producers’ research notes, treatments, scripts, storyboards, and correspondence.
That meant that Kartemquin long ago became unable to perform, in house, all the preservation and restoration it would have liked. It also wants to expand its educational and other programs, including Diverse Voices in Docs, its professional mentorship and development program for documentary filmmakers of color.
As for Washington University’s archive, a unit of the institution’s libraries’ Julian Edison Department of Special Collections, it has announced plans to work swiftly to provide access to Kartemquin’s production and corporate papers, to process analog and tape-based collections, and to plan the preservation of digital materials.
In a second phase of the collaboration, the FMA will receive Kartemquin’s digital productions.
The parties both have said that the nature of their collaboration, as a film production company and a university archive, provides opportunities for new kinds of scholarship relating to the whole course of documentary film production, from start to finish and beyond. “We look forward to moving the collection over the next few years and collaborating on academic and public programming as the materials become more accessible,” said Gordon Quinn, Kartemquin Co-Founder and Artistic Director, in a statement.
Kartemquin’s Consulting Archivist, Carolyn Faber, added: “The acquisition of a vast, complicated production collection like Kartemquin’s can serve as a roadmap for collecting and preserving independent film collections.”
— Peter Monaghan