by Ben Sachs
Ben Sachs: Do you feel that Rouch's theory of provocation influenced the films that Kartemquin made?
Gordon Quinn: Not so much provocation, not in that sense. But in the 70s, when we were working with political organizations, we made agitprop and political films—the films were provocative. They were a challenge to the power structure, but not provocative in the way that Judy's talking about.
When you do that kind of filmmaking, there are always provocative moments. So, like in UE/Wells , we have a confrontation with the plant owners and the management comes out and threaten us. We leave it in the movie. The owner says, "What is that thing?" And we say, "It's a microphone." And he says, "Do you have a way of protecting that?" He's literally threatening us.
I think one of the things that we picked up from Rouch and that's in most of our films . . . we always like it when we can reveal what it is that we're doing, our relationship to our subjects. We don't try to be invisible. We're right there; [the subjects] look at us. Sometimes they talk to us—and we talk back from behind the camera. You know, because it's in the situation.
Judy Hoffman: I think there might be more similarities in the distribution of the films. When we screen them, we try to provoke the audience. It's not necessarily within the films themselves.
Could you talk a bit more about your distribution process?
Quinn: I just want to say one thing first. For me, those kinds of distinctions—like between cinema verite and direct cinema—we've been arguing about them for over 30 years. I don't know if they're that important. To me, what's important in the kind of filmmaking that we do is to be responsive to the situation [we're documenting].
Hoffman: It's nice to let people know that there are other ways of making films.Home for Life . . . But what we found as we kept making films was that we have to respond to the situation [with our filmmaking]. So some of our films now have a narrator; other films don't have a narrator. It depends.
Hoffman: We also grew into putting in intertitles.
Quinn: We used to bend ourselves out of shape to not have a narrator. We'd have all of these graphics and titles and things . . . and we'd have no music that wasn't actually in the situation we were shooting.
Hoffman: That's direct cinema.
Quinn: Right. But as we moved on, we found different films called for different things. And now, almost all of our films have music in them—something we never would have done earlier.
Hoffman: A lot of documentaries use music now. There's been a shift. I don't know if that has to do with how they're distributed now, with television and such . . . but the purity aspect has lessened.
Quinn: I think purity can become a dead end. In other words, we saw how important emotion was in changing people's minds [about a subject]. What we saw with Hoop Dreams was that if you could really get someone, grab them by the heart, and create that emotional power, then you can reach out to audiences who aren't already sympathetic necessarily to your characters. We began to see that music can help us to do that.
When we began, that would have been an anathema. We would have said we were crossing some line. Now I see it more as a dialectical thing.
Hoffman: [Our film] Trick Bag  is more on the order of cinema verite. I don't know if you've ever seen that.
Quinn: It's interviews interspersed with music.
Hoffman: And it's also [about] collecting people and putting them together in a certain way. It was created, rather than just found in action.
The way you describe Kartemquin's Films as dialectical reminds me of a Jean Rouch quote I discovered recently: "To ethnographers, I'm a filmmaker; but to filmmakers, I'm an ethnographer."
Quinn: I think that comes from people wanting to have a theoretical clarity to what they're doing and not being able to engage with the contradictions of their situation. Just the idea of bringing [different] people together . . . one of the things that happens when you do that is that when [the subjects] talk to each other and hear each other talking, it stimulates them to say things that they wouldn't say if you interviewed them alone. Another thing that happens is that they interact with each other in ways you hadn't expected.
Judy, did Rouch ever talk to you about issues of purity in documentary filmmaking?
Hoffman: No. He had no interest in that. For him, sometimes the biggest truths were revealed through the biggest lies. I mean, he was a surrealist, he was an anarchist. He just relished contradiction.
Quinn: I'm not sure if I ever thought about it in this way before—because we didn't go down Rouch's path, which was something very different [from what we did]—but when we saw Chronicle of a Summer and Maitres Fous and some of these other films . . . I think what we responded to was precisely that. We came out of this direct-cinema background, and we created a manifesto that adopted it in our own way. But what was really exciting for us was [the idea] that there was no set of rules. There is a way of interacting with the real world that's always going to be evolving.