Jean Rouch in Chicago: An interview with Judy Hoffman and Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin Films, part two

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Rouch (left) as depicted in the 1995 portrait Rouch in Reverse
  • Rouch (left) as depicted in the 1995 portrait Rouch in Reverse
On Friday I posted the first part of my long interview with Gordon Quinn and Judy Hoffman, cofounder and board member, respectively, of the documentary production company Kartemquin Films. We set out to discuss the French ethnographer and filmmaker Jean Rouch, whose work is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center this month and who influenced Kartemquin's output; however, our conversation expanded to include a range of subjects relating to documentary theory and practice. In this part of the conversation, we begin by talking about Rouch's theory of provocation (creating events for the purpose of documenting them) and then get into longstanding debates about authenticity in nonfiction filmmaking. Tomorrow I'll post the final part of the interview, in which we return to Rouch's experience in Chicago and his desire to make a movie about the Wise Fools Pub in Lincoln Park.

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 [1975], 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
  • Home for Life
Quinn: We don't have a methodology—not in a formal sense. We thought we did at the beginning, when we made 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 [1974] is more on the order of cinema verite. I don't know if you've ever seen that.

No.

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."

Rouchs Les Maitres Fous (aka The Mad Masters) screens at the Siskel tonight
  • Rouch's Les Maitres Fous (aka The Mad Masters) screens at the Siskel tonight
Hoffman: There was a real hostile period between filmmakers and anthropologists as to what was the correct methodology, with filmmakers fighting for a story or the visual and anthropologists wanting this kind-of field-work purity. They were fighting over authenticity . . . but that's pretty much gone now.

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.

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