Inside the world of non-fiction filmmaking, at least in this era of the boisterous documentarian, the director has become the star. Names like Alex Gibney, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have become the major forces behind their films, often times tossing themselves into the narrative driving their respective films.
However, one of the most unsung voices within the world of non-fiction filmmaking isn’t even a single entity. The Chicago-based filmmaking collective, founded by the likes of Gerald Temaner and Gordon Quinn, is best known for works from director Steve James, but has become one of the most influential groups within the world of non-fiction cinema.
And while they may not be as talked about as bombastic filmmakers like Moore or auteurs like Fredrick Wiseman, they themselves have given us the chance to dig back into their vaults for a handful of true documentary classics.
The first of three volumes of the Kartemquin Films Collection: The Early Years is a collection of two films, available currently on DVD, that look at the both the beginnings of the company while also being still pertinet time capsules of what it was like to be a youth near the end of the ‘60s. Vital to this very moment, these two documentaries may be seen as little more than sociological curios, but they should be received as what they truly are; beauitful meditations on youth and what that truly means.
First up is the short documentary, Parents. Following a parish youth group in a lower-middle-class part of Chicago, the film finds the group in the middle of a discussion about, well, parents. Be it their authority over the teens, or the lack of generational knowledge or appreciation, the film touches on how the kids feel in very much a “parents just don’t understand” short documentary for a generation whose angst at being ignored is bursting at the seam.
And then there is Thumbs Down. The feature length documentary on the disc, this film follows the same group of kids in Chicago, but this time as they try to set up an anti-war mass at their parish. Thumbs Down is the name of the group, and with a similar outlook on the generational differences between the youth set and their parents, the film plays as a beautiful, full length, father to its shorter counterpart.
Playing almost as one film, the bringing together of both films is quite thrilling. Positing the group’s ideology through the form of a flowing discussion in Parents, Thumbs Down feels as though it is an example of what was posited in the previous short. Visually sharing the same DNA, both films are beautifully rendered in black and white, and are stunningly intimate.
However, it’s the brains behind the beauty that make these two pictures as thrilling as they are to watch, over four decades after the fact. At a time when the age gap was as expansive and definitive as it has ever been in modern history, it doesn’t sit as truly just a time capsule. Looking at many different issues that are still as pertinent today as they ever have been, with regards to the youth movement, the films may very well be two of the most important documentaries for the younger generations to re-visit, or be introduced to for the first time. Absolutely universal, these films haven’t lost a step aesthetically or intellectually.
Now, while the $30 is steep for just a full length and short feature film, this isn’t without its supplements. As with all three volumes, the release comes with a gorgeous transfer of the films involved, interviews with the cast and crew, and trailers abound. This is a really fantastic set that is beautifully curated and gives the viewer a truly fantastic look at one of the most influential names within the world of non-fiction filmmaking.