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

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Rouch (left) with fellow ethnographer Edgar Morin in
  • Rouch (left) with fellow ethnographer Edgar Morin in
In this concluding segment of my three-part interview with Gordon Quinn and Judy Hoffman—cofounder and longtime board member, respectively, of Chicago's Kartemquin Films—we discuss how French ethnographer and filmmaker Jean Rouch influenced various projects they pursued over the years. Hoffman served as Rouch's assistant in the early 1970s when he attended the ninth annual Congress on Anthropological and Ethnographic Sciences in Chicago and later worked with him on an aborted film about the city's jazz scene. Quinn's connection to Rouch is less direct, but no less significant; as he explained in previous installments of the interview, Rouch was a key influence on such early Kartemquin films as Inquiring Nuns and Home for Life. As I learned in this conversation, following in Rouch's footsteps is no easy task. His method of "shared anthropology" opens up practitioners to all sorts of unexpected challenges, as Quinn and Hoffman make clear. My thanks to Kartemquin's Tim Horsburgh for arranging this interview and to the Gene Siskel Film Center, whose ongoing Rouch retrospective inspired me to propose it in the first place.

Read the first part here, and the second part here.

Judy Hoffman: At the [1973] Congress [on Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences] when I was Rouch's assistant, I was lucky enough to sit in and take notes on the meeting between him and Margaret Mead where they developed their statement on shared anthropology. I took a lot away from that.

Later I went and worked with Chuck Olin in British Columbia [to make] a film for the Field Museum and met the Kwakwaka'wakw Indians, who then hired us to come back and make a film for them about the repatriation of artifacts, called Box of Treasures. I started a video program up there to teach [the Kwakwaka'wakw] how to make videos so that they could create their own images and tell their own stories, so they didn't have to have people from outside their culture come in and translate for them anymore. The idea of shared anthropology I took away personally from Rouch.

Box of Treasures
  • Box of Treasures
Gordon Quinn: This was a little bit before that, but in the early days of Kartemquin, I was going down to this thing called the Writers' Workshop in Gary, Indiana. I spent years doing this, and our labor films grew out of that work I was doing down there. One of the things I started doing with the Portapak [an early video camera] was training the sons and daughters of steel workers to make documentaries.

I taught them how to use the camera; they were starting to make their own videos about what they'd do around the Workshop, and people would come in and make presentations and stuff. And then, at a certain point, I ran into this little revolt. Because they wanted to do something about their community—you know, about their generation. And they were like, "We want you to film it." They were sort of saying, "Yes, we have these skills, we can do these things, but now we want to talk to the nation."

They were pushing back. This happened to you too, with the Kwakwaka'wakw, where they wanted you to make a film. So I think there's always a tension there between empowering people—giving them the ability to tell their own stories—and also their sophistication about what they want to do on a larger stage.

Hoffman: I think that video in its early days fit well with the ideas of cinema verite because there were no rules. In a sense you could do whatever you wanted to. When I worked with [Kartemquin cofounder] Jerry Temaner [at the University of Illinois at Chicago], we had the Sony Portapak; and for the anthropology conference, we wanted to present Chicago. So we started training people from [Chicago] communities in video-making, and they presented a series of 13 videos to the anthropology congress called "Ethnicity in Chicago."

One in particular stands out in its Rouch-like nature—although [the people who made it] knew nothing of Rouch. It was [by] the Italians who lived around Taylor and Racine. They made a video called Life Is More Than the Corner of Taylor and Racine. They made an opera. They walked through the alleys of Little Italy, singing opera about their neighborhood.

Quinn: Where is that video?

Hoffman: It's gone.

Quinn: It's gone?

Hoffman: It's gone. But with early video, I think you saw a lot of that—putting fiction and documentary together. It was a time of guerrilla television and alternative TV movements.

Quinn: When I was making those videos at the Writers' Workshop, we didn't have a Portapak. We were borrowing it from [Temaner's office]. I remember that I was once going down there . . . I was going to get the equipment, and the campus police came. They arrested me! I wasn't a student and none of my ID satisfied them. So they were holding me on campus, and Temaner literally had to come down; they wouldn't take his word over the phone. He had to come down and get me out!

Hoffman: I was using that equipment to make that film with Rouch that failed. Charles Benton, who ran Films Inc., funded it. He distributed the few films of Rouch's that were in distribution in this country. He gave us money to do the film, and the idea was that I was going to direct it, [Kartemquin videographer] Jim Morissette would shoot it, and people from the university would work on it. We were all young and naive. We went to the Wise Fools Pub, and we lit the fuck out of the place. People were blinded. And halfway through the set, the [camera] magazine jammed and Morissette was pulling film out of the magazine. It was just a disaster.

Ben Sachs: So the film never came to completion?

Hoffman: No. But Rouch wanted to continue, and he came back to Chicago a couple of times. He'd use conferences as a way to get back here to continue to explore the film with me. I actually have a 400-foot roll of film that he shot in the Wise Fools under candlelight. It was magical. Everything for him was magical.

We continued to try to raise money for it. I wrote a grant to the Illinois Arts Council and got turned down, even though there was funding coming from ORTEF, France's Organization for Radio, Television and Film. It just started to peter out, as we met with more and more resistance [here]. But he came back to Chicago a couple of other times to do presentations. I'd hang out with him then—take him to Maxwell Street and take him to hear music and things like that.

When was the last time you saw him?

Hoffman: It's really strange. I was in Paris in the early 90s, and I went to see him at the Musée de l'Homme. We talked for a while and then . . . he made a phone call, he gave me an address, and then said, "Go there." It ended up being the Cinematheque de la Danse. They had a project that they wanted me to help them with on [choreographer] Katherine Dunham. That was the last time I saw him, at this weird get-together where he's sending me off on this chase.

Did you finish that film?

Hoffman: Yeah. [laughs] That film got completed.

I thought of Kartemquin's output when I read that Rouch described Chronicle of a Summer as "inverse ethnography." Quite a few of the Kartemquin films are about Chicago, and there's a sense that the filmmakers are investigating their own territory.

Hoffman: I think what Rouch was talking about when he said that was that he felt like an outsider in France for so long. After the Second World War, he never felt at home in France at all. This is reflected in a film like Little by Little [which plays at the Siskel Center on January 27 and 31 —ed.], where he has Africans do ethnography on the colonialists.

Little by Little
  • Little by Little
Quinn: That [outlook] had an influence on us right from the beginning—the question, through whose eyes do you see a certain kind of reality? So even when we made Home for Life, we were following two new residents into the [retirement] home. One of the things we talked about at the time was that if you had somebody new coming into a strange environment, you will see things that the people who know it will not see. So there's an aspect of inverse ethnography that we've always been aware of.

I think what you were referring to was what I sometimes call Kartemquin's provincial roots. You know, we were in Chicago and we made films about what was close to us. We're now much broader [in our outlook]; we make films sometimes about the rest of the world. But we still see ourselves are very much rooted here.

Hoffman: Rouch's idea of the participant-observer is more important to what Karteqmuin does than inverse ethnography.

Quinn: Though that was something we were very excited about... We played with those ideas, though they're very difficult to [realize] because of the nature of power relationships... Once we kicked around the idea of taking kids from the inner city and letting them make a film about Winnetka.

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