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In the next installment in our partner spotlight series, we talk with City of Trees director Brandon Kramer about the invaluable collaboration and mentorship Kartemquin Films has provided to Meridian Hill Pictures.
“Focusing on people whose lives are most directly affected by social and political change and who are often overlooked or misrepresented by the media, Kartemquin's films open up a dialogue, bothin communities and between the general public and policymakers. Kartemquin sparks democracy through documentary.”
– Kartemquin Films Mission Statement
Since 1966, Kartemquin Films has served as a home for Chicago’s documentary filmmakers. As the studio’s mission and reach have expanded with the success of landmark films like Hoop Dreams (1994), The New Americans (2004), The Interrupters (2011), and Life Itself (2014), Kartemquin has committed itself to mentoring and fostering aspiring documentary filmmakers from around the world.
Brandon and Lance first learned about Kartemquin through KTQ’s iconic film Hoop Dreams, when they saw the film in their high school English class in the late 90’s. Kartemquin’s expertise telling the stories of underrepresented people and communities through honest, authentic and compelling narratives was an immediate inspiration. As Lance and Brandon were in the early stages of starting Meridian Hill Pictures, they became more interested in understanding how Kartemquin formed both their ethical approach to vérité storytelling and how they built a sustainable documentary production organization around these principles.
When Kartemquin co-founder and artistic director Gordon Quinn and executive director Justine Nagan came to Washington, D.C. in 2011 to host a master documentary filmmaking class at the Hill Center, Brandon and Lance jumped at the opportunity to learn from them.
“At that point we were about a year into production on City of Trees,” Brandon recalled. “We were trying to understand how to follow our characters’ lives and craft a story out of it. We were grappling with how we should deal with moments where you’re in someone’s life and they’re struggling. What do you observe and capture and at what point do you step in to help?”
As it was their first feature-length documentary, it often felt like the challenges Brandon and Lance were running into were unique to City of Trees, but they quickly learned that Gordon and Justine had encountered many similar issues in their years of filmmaking.
“They were speaking a language that we didn’t even realize existed…and they were doing it so eloquently and so clearly. It was based on the experience they’d gained over decades of filmmaking."
"We were at a blockage point on so many ethical, social, artistic and financial issues and they really understood the nuances of all of those situations. I just remember walking out of that room and feeling such a sense of catharsis.”
After the workshop, Lance and Brandon sought out Gordon, Justine and the staff at Kartemquin as mentors.
“We realized that in that two-hour workshop we answered almost every question we had been wrestling with for 18 months. We realized we really needed to make sure that we had mentors like Gordon and Justine to turn to at specific points, to make sure we were making the right decisions as we moved forward.”
Fortunately, Kartemquin agreed to be involved as a Fiscal Sponsor to the project. Since then, they’ve advised the City of Trees team on how to document and structure the film’s story, build relationships and navigate the ethical questions that inevitably arise when making intimate films about real people. They’ve also shared their hard-earned wisdom on how to go about fundraising, distributing, and designing outreach campaigns for independent documentary films.
“They’ve been there at every stage in really targeted ways. In very condensed periods of time they are able to share lessons learned that would have taken us much longer and many mistakes to figure out.”
Having a non-profit fiscal sponsor for the film helped enable MHP to pursue grants from funders like the Bancroft Foundation and All Souls Beckner Fund. It also facilitated the runaway success of the film’s December 2014 Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $58,000 from over 500 backers.
One of the major highlights of working with Kartemquin was when Brandon, Lance and editor Edwin Martinez took a trip to Chicago to workshop an early rough cut of City of Trees through the KTQ Labs program.
“Through KTQ Labs, the whole Kartemquin staff weighed in and really helped push us to say yes, you can make a simplified version of the film, but what you guys have in these people and their stories is something deeper. You look at the film now and you really have a depth that shows each person’s journey and contradictions. I don’t think we would have had the courage to walk down that road without their guidance.”
“Kartemquin has this beautiful old house in Chicago. You open the door and all the bedrooms are edit suites and films are getting made. Going through the KTQ screening, seeing the staff and the work they’re doing, made me so grateful that that house exists. It’s a production house but I see it as a university or a school with a very specific pedagogy or approach to documentary storytelling that’s vibrant, growing and incredibly supportive to people like us.”
Nearly five years after beginning City of Trees, as Brandon, Lance and the MHP team approach a final cut of the film, they could not be more honored to have Kartemquin’s name in the credits.
“Having the film produced ‘in association with Kartemquin’ means the world to us. Kartemquin has had such a huge impact on everything, all the decisions that we’ve made in this film. The film is very directly influenced by them, so after four years of working together we told them we wanted to credit them in a way that really did justice to their input.”