Doc Edge’s headline international guest, Steve James, is well-known for his early-career Hoop Dreams and latest film, Life Itself. The subject of the latter, the later Roger Ebert, called the former “the great American documentary”.
Life Itself charts the life and, in particular, the last days of Ebert’s 11-year battle with cancer. Ebert lived most of his life in the city of Chicago, with a lifelong career as a critic with the Chicago Sun-Times. He turned down an offer of megabucks to move to a New York City newspaper.
James seems equally bound to Chicago – possibly as a result of his strong association with Kartemquin Films. The not-for-profit organization, which has a staff of 13 people plus some 25 producers and associates, describes itself as “a home for independent filmmakers developing documentary as a vehicle to deepen our understanding of society through everyday human drama”.
Their philosophy can perhaps best be summarized in their solicitation for donations: “When you make a contribution to Kartemquin, you enable us to continue telling the stories of the people whose lives are most directly affected by social and political change, and who are often overlooked or misrepresented by the media. For over 45 years our films have helped to provoke essential dialogue, both in communities and between the general public and policymakers.”
Described as a “documentary powerhouse”, they have also been given a Freedom of Speech Award for “unflinchingly holding up a mirror to American society”.
Another strand of Kartemquin’s work, alongside their innovative media arts community programmes, is fostering the growth of emerging filmmaking voices who are passionate about social issues, and who advocate for a strong independent public media. “Kartemquin sparks democracy through documentary.”
James’ association with Kartemquin began with his first major documentary, Hoop Dreams. Since then, over half his 20 projects have been made in association with Kartemquin. James has racked up an extraordinary range of awards along the way, as have the films themselves – half a dozen of which have premiered at Sundance.
Even with all that success, financing documentary films remains a challenge. Kartemquin still solicits donations, and part of the financing of Life Itself was crowdfunded.
One reward offered through the Indiegogo campaign was streaming the film (via VHX) to backers simultaneously with the world premiere at Sundance. It was a hugely successful tactic. In a small way Max Currie’s Everything We Loved will emulate it with a simultaneous NZIFF and ondemand premiere in NZ.
In previous masterclasses, James has focused on both the craft of storytelling and the ethical considerations of his filmmaking style – which often involve him appearing on screen. James likes to discuss early influences, the time involved in winning the trust of one’s subjects, turning the camera off as a strategy, and the perspective of the film-maker as insider versus that of the outsider.
In regard to morality and ethics in documentary filmmaking, he quoted Life Itself cinematographer Dana Kupper’s “Every doc is a thousand lies in the service of the truth”.
When I have reading Roger Ebert’s reviews I have found none of the snide bitchiness, smart-alec put downs or the perverse delight in highfalutin’ words that sometimes characterize others’ reviews. On the contrary, Ebert’s aim was to connect with all potential audiences, high-brow to populist. His writing was always filled with an understanding of what goes into making a film – the struggles, the commitment – and a compassion for the characters that appear in a film, be the film fictional or factual, the characters romantic or psychopathic. Ebert always wrote with a deep humanity.
In James’ portrait of Ebert, that same deep humanity beams out of the screen.