Interview: Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin Films Revisits ‘Hoop Dreams’

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CHICAGO – It has been 22 years since one of the greatest documentaries in film history was released, and it was created right here in Chicago by Kartemquin Films. “Hoop Dreams,” produced by Gordon Quinn (among others) and directed by Steve James, was a turning point for Kartemquin, which had at the time been making socially focused docs for over 30 years. As part of the film company’s 50th anniversary, Gordon Quinn revisits the groundbreaking film.

“Hoop Dreams” (1994) was the story of high schoolers William Gates and Arthur Agee, as they and their families experience the ups and downs of their path to basketball glory. Filmed as a fly-on-the-wall series of events, the documentary is a fascinating and emotional narrative on the levels of fulfillment in sports and in life. Snubbed at the Academy Awards for Best Documentary (it did get a nomination for Best Editing), the film earned a status as one of the best ever docs, and remains one of the most influential in film history.

Kartemquin Films Reached New Heights in ‘Hoop Dreams’ (1994)
Photo credit: Kartemquin Films, in PART TWO of a week-long celebration of Kartemquin Films’ 50th Anniversary, talked to Executive Producer Gordon Quinn about “Hoop Dreams,” and how it resonates to today. Kartemquin will have an Anniversary Gala on June 24th, 2016. For details, click here. The film ‘Golub,’ which you directed, is considered a bridge from the political philosophies of Kartemquin to a more emotional identification with subjects, which evolved to “Hoop Dreams.” What is the instinct that you developed as an emotional filmmaker, that allows that you to capture certain feelings. Is it something elusive or something that is hunted down purposefully?

Gordon Quinn: Every ten years or so, I liked to do a film about an artist – this allowed me to reflect on our own work – and [Leon] Golub was a painter. He was an artist struggling to make it in the New York City art world, but at the same time he was a very political guy, and engaged in the world around him. In the film, we saw how that world eventually encroached into his painting. One of my favorite lines in the film was how he had to be more precise, ‘but now the pants have wrinkles, I hated to do it, but I had to do it.’

None of our films look alike, we are very dialectical in our approach to each one, and ‘Hoop Dreams’ was no exception. That’s what I love about documentary filmmaking, we never know where the story is going, we don’t know what is going to happen next, and we’re inside a culture of people that you have to figure out in many ways. It’s a relationship between what you thought might have been the story, and what happens in the ‘field.’ Out of that comes the story, which was exactly what happened with ‘Hoop Dreams.’ That documentary of course changed the landscape for your organization, not only in garnering attention but in the evolution of documentary form. As the team was putting it together, did anyone sense the special nature of it, and how did that help the process along to the decisions behind the final cut?

Quinn: The film was an unbelievable struggle. We were trying to raise money in the midst of shooting it, and just explaining to people took a lot of effort. I remember talking to someone who should have gotten it, this person was in Public Television, and they didn’t think we had a story, until ‘maybe something bad happens to one of the boys.’ Besides being somewhat heartless, it was also wrong.

What makes ‘Hoop Dreams’ such a powerful film, is that it carries a message that maybe we can do something about our problems in America, reflected in the resiliency and strength of those families that we portrayed. The film was where we really saw the characters that we care about, interwoven with a analysis that is trying to help the audience understand what is happening in these people’s lives. And in what is happening, there is an understanding of the larger power relationships in the world. How did the process of making and completing the documentary affect Kartemquin Films at the time?

Quinn: In many ways, the film brought us back to our roots in veríté filmmaking. What we saw in the powerful emotional scenes within it – at nearly three hours long and with no star power – was an outreach to a different and more important audiences. There were the similarly involved folks who saw it that were part of the struggle, but there was also a new audience that weren’t empathetic or sympathetic to the people we were portraying. They would never watch a film about inner city families, but they watched ‘Hoop Dreams.’

It had the hook of sports, coming-of-age and family drama. We took that to heart after we saw the reaction to the film, and we’ve spent the next two decades honing this skill and telling these very emotional stories. We want to tell a story that makes an audience feel something – they are all not going to feel the same thing, and that’s okay – but if the film is working they will all feel something.

Steve James
Director Steve James, Arthur Agee and William Gates of ‘Hoop Dreams’
Photo credit: Kartemquin Films When you were in the midst of shooting the 250 hours of footage, and the documentary started to have life, how did you find the financing to finally finish the vision of the film?

Quinn: As I said, no one understood what we were doing and no one believed in the project. The PBS station KTCA in Minneapolis partnered with us, but they didn’t have much in the way of resources to put in it. We eventually connected with the MacArthur Foundation, and they really saved our ass as far as getting the film finished. It was critical in the development of the film. The Cabrini Green public housing complex that you depict in the film no longer exists, 20 years later. What history, in your opinion, do you think is lost in a city when gentrification obliterates these old neighborhoods?

Quinn: Gentrification can be a plague, as it eats up neighborhoods. We certainly saw it coming with Cabrini Green, but it sure took a long time. The Wellington Avenue location we’re sitting in now was a working class neighborhood when we moved here in 1971. The Stewart Warner factory was down on Diversey Avenue, and we actually worked with the unions during the time that it was still open. There was a street gang who used to hang out here, they called themselves the ‘Insane Unknowns’ – it was the greatest gang name ever. When we were naming Kartemquin, I should have consulted with those kids. [laughs] After the success of ‘Hoop Dreams,’ unprecedented for Kartemquin Films to that point, what was the best decision that came from that success, and how has the organization followed through with that decision over the last 20 years?

Quinn: We were able to get into virtually any office after the success of the film, and pitch our next project. But what they all wanted was ‘Hoop Dreams 2,’ and that is not what director Steve James wanted. We wanted to do what eventually became the film ‘Stevie,’ which was impossible to both produce and to raise money for it. And the other characteristic film we did after ‘Hoop Dreams’ was the PBS series ‘The New Americans.’

What we did that was most right for us, was not doing what everyone was telling us to do. The key was thinking about what we wanted to do, and if the industry or field we were in was not ready for it, or was resistant to it, we worked to change the industry. That was the important lesson that came from our experiences with ‘Hoop Dreams.’

Click here for PART ONE of the interview.
Click here for PART THREE of the interview.

The City of Chicago is honoring Kartemquin Films with a museum exhibit at “Expo 72,” 72 East Randolph Street, through August 20th, 2016. Click here for details. For more information about the 50 Anniversary Kartemquin retrospective on WTTW PBS Chicago, click here. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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