Viva Doc Alumns at Kartemquin Films

One of the advantages of being involved with Viva Doc is meeting industry professionals and other great networking opportunities.

Recently, Viva Doc is proud to announce that a number of our current members and alumns have found themselves interning and even working for esteemed, award-winning documentary production companies (including Towers, Kurtis, and Kartemquin).

Viva Doc alumns Naomi Kothbauer, Jeff Perlman, Mary Horan, Patrick Lile, Jonathon Vogel, and Orion Pahl are among some of those who have interned with Kartemquin Films.  Jeff was recently hired on  for part-time outreach work, and Patrick has been also hired on to do outreach for The Interrupters, a new film from the makers of Hoop Dreams which is already being called a potential Oscar contender.

We interviewed Naomi Kothbauer (last year's Viva Doc president) about her experience interning for Kartemquin Films.  If you are considering getting an internship, there are some great tidbits of advice below.  And as always, please come to our meetings this semester for more workshops and networking events that can prepare you for an internship.

Jeff Perlman (right), Viva Doc alumn, has been helping out at Kartemquin

Viva Doc: So, tell us about your general experience with internships?

Naomi: Well, I've had three so far…my senior year, I interned at Towers and Kurtis, and I just wrapped up a summer internship at Kartemquin.

Viva Doc: What is the internship application process like?

Naomi: Well, it really depends on the place.  No matter what, though, it's important that you follow the directions they supply.  Deadlines, references, application forms…all that.  Violate anything and you are automatically disqualified.  Internships are highly competitive, so if they see something wrong, they will usually toss that application just to thin out the pile.  Same thing with film festivals, usually.  And as far as Kartemquin is concerned, I (and many others) had to apply twice or even three times to finally get an internship.  The first time I applied, I didn't even get an interview because over 200 people had applied for just 5 positions.  So, don't get discouraged if you don't get a call back after your first time applying somewhere.  Just consider it to be a chance to strengthen your resume for the next time you apply.  The more you apply, the more they know that you're really serious about the internship and about committing yourself to their work.

Viva Doc: What did you like most about the Kartemquin internship?

Naomi: There was so much, honestly.  In general, internships can kind of drag when you're stuck doing a lot of the tedious work, but with Kartemquin, they tried to get the interns involved with a lot of different processes.  I got to go on shoots, transcribe, help with social media/marketing/PR, and every week they had workshops where the interns got to learn from Kartemquin filmmakers.

Viva Doc: What are you experiences with internships and pay?

Naomi: Well, due to the economy, most internships don't offer pay.  But it's important that you communicate clearly with them from the get-go so that you reach a mutually-beneficial agreement.  You interning is important, but you working and being able to pay your bills is also important.  Especially if you're interning, working, and taking classes…try to not overdo it.  You'll get burnt out really fast.

Viva Doc: What kind of advantage has Viva Doc given you and others when it comes to getting internships?

Naomi: Well, Viva Doc has always offered a lot of opportunities for students to interact with people working in the field.  Networking is so important.  Also, Viva Doc has hosted a few industry professional peer-review sessions where professionals come in and rate student films, and so far many of the Viva Doc members who have shown their films to Kartemquin folks have also gotten internships there.

Viva Doc: What are some tips for those who are looking to build their resumes/filmographies?

Naomi: One of the best things you can do is to consider yourself a brand.  You're essentially selling yourself to them, so think about what kind of imagery you want on your website, your resume, your business cards, etc.  It should be unique and speak of your skills.  Also, for those folks who don't have a lot of work or film experience, just think about the transferrable skills you learned from various things and infuse that language into your resume.  For example, I worked as a shift manager at McDonald's in high school, so in my resume I put a short description like “managed a diverse group of people and helped them perform their best in a high-stress environment.”  I told them what I accomplished at that job, not just what I did.  Nobody cares that I made burgers or handed food out of a drive-thru, or at least, not literally.  My accomplishments, however, could be easily related to a film/production environment.  If you're looking to get an editing gig, try to highlight your organizational skills, no matter the job.  If you're looking for something that involves a lot of interpersonal interaction, try highlighting social skills and group settings in job descriptions.  You know, that sort of thing.

Viva Doc: Thanks for your feedback, Naomi.  We hope to continue our tradition of connecting Viva Doc members to internship and job opportunities!

Decision Forces Filmmaker to Turn Over 600 Hours of Footage to Chevron

Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Federal District Court in New York granted Chevron’s request for a subpoena, which demands access to over 600 hours of footage from “Crude,” a documentary that chronicles a legal battle being supported by 30,000 Amazonian settlers hoping to hold Texaco (now owned by Chevron) responsible for environmental devastation in Ecuador.

Joseph Berlinger, the filmmaker behind “Crude,” claimed he was protected by “journalistic privilege,” but, according to the New York Times, he qualified for the privilege but “the conditions for overcoming that privilege had been met” by Chevron.

Berlinger plans to ask the judge to “stay the subpoena” so the decision can be appealed.

Many in the documentary filmmaking community have indicated that they will support Berlinger’s effort to appeal and resist this decision. Filmmakers understand what this decision could mean for the future of documentary filmmaking.

Gordon Quinn, artistic director and founder of Kartemquin Films in Chicago, said, “My experience is that the ‘outs’ of a film usually show the big and the powerful to be worse than they are portrayed in our films, but if we have to turn over footage and spend time in court and defend ourselves for expressing our First Amendment rights it can be an overwhelming burden for a small organization like ours.”

Quinn added, “It has the feel of intimidation and using the legal process to let us know don’t take on the big guys or they can drive you crazy and drain your resources by tying you up in court.”

Documentary instructor at Columbia College Chicago and director of “The Return of Navajo Boy,” a film that touched upon the impact of uranium mining on the Navajo, Jeff Spitz, had not heard about it. He noted from his experience making “Navajo Boy, “The extraction industries have absolutely no interest in the safety and/or benefits of their work for indigenous people. Indigenous people pay the hidden price of our energy.”

An Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago with forty years of documentary filmmaking experience, Russell Porter, reacted, “The reported federal judgment that filmmaker Joe Berlinger must turn over his outtakes to Chevron’s defense lawyers strikes me as an arbitrary and dangerous interpretation of the First Amendment.”

“The role of independent documentary filmmakers has almost totally replaced what was historically the function of investigative journalism,” said Porterin fact there is no difference between the methodology and social/political function of filmmakers like Berlinger and that of – say – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal.”

New York Times writer for the ArtsBeat Blog diligently followed this story conducting interviews with filmmakers Michael Moore and Ric Burns (the director of “Andy Warhol” and PBS’ “New York”) on Thursday.

Burns reacted, Chevron is “really saying ‘O.K., pal, drop your drawers, and with it, 600 hours of film.'” And added, “That’s insane. That’s a weapon so blunt that it’s impossible not to feel that Judge Kaplan doesn’t care about the impression that is conveyed.”

Burns added this “contributes to a general culture of contempt for investigative journalism” and next time someone goes to make a “Crude” the group that provides information on the subject will be a “much leerier group of informants.”

Michael Moore had “never heard of such a ruling.” Moore told the ArtsBeat Blog he never had to deal with any corporation suing him to find out how he gathered his information.

“Obviously the ramifications of this go far beyond documentary films, if corporations are allowed to pry into a reporter’s notebook or into a television station’s newsroom,” said Moore.

Moore hoped the decision would be overturned on appeal and, if not, Berlinger should “resist the subpoena.” He also said that “hundreds of filmmakers” would support Berlinger’s fight to not turn over his footage to Chevron.

Documentary as Journalism?

The New York Times put together an article that suggested this decision re-ignites a debate over whether a documentary filmmaker should have journalistic privileges or not.

In his interview with ArtsBeat Blog, Moore said, “Documentaries are a form of journalism.”

The lawyer for Chevron, Randy M. Mastro, according to the New York Times, firmly believes that “Crude” should not be considered journalism. And, Mastro claimed that this decision is not about “the First Amendment” or journalistic privilege.

Mastro said, “This is about a plaintiffs’ lawyer who decided he wanted to star in a movie and gave a sympathetic filmmaker extraordinary access to the plaintiffs’ case and strategy.”

Porter said of this statement, “The cynical dismissal of the film “Crude” as ‘…a case of a lawyer who decided he wanted to be a movie star’ would be laughable if it were not so obviously disingenuous, self-serving and untrue.”

A key problem is the fact that documentary filmmakers are expected to have subjects sign releases that they agree to appear in the film. With “Crude,” pact agreements were actually formed between the filmmaker and the settlers and those agreements would clearly be violated if Chevron was able to use the footage for their own agenda.

What are documentary filmmakers supposed to do in the future if this stands? What will filmmakers need to look out for and do to protect themselves? What additional amount of self-censorship will filmmakers have to engage in?

Will filmmakers have to begin to destroy all of their footage that they have left over once their film is complete? How are filmmakers going to handle a reality where corporations can force filmmakers to compromise their sources and turn over unused footage to them?

At a time where BP is responsible for the leaking of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, what should those documenting the destruction be weary of if a precedent is set that corporations like Chevron can subpoena unused footage to take down plaintiffs who are challenging business practices and suggesting corporations should be held responsible or accountable for their actions?

There are many more questions about the ramifications of this decision on filmmaking. The issue of journalistic privilege and documentary should be the subject of conversation for the next months especially if filmmakers unite and mount a visible effort in support of Berlinger’s right to not hand over the footage to Chevron.


The following is Associate Professor of Columbia College Chicago and documentary filmmaker Russell Porter’s full response to the decision.

I am an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago with almost forty years experience as a documentary filmmaker, journalist and teacher on five continents. I have extensive experience of working with indigenous people and their struggles to maintain their traditional ways of life in the face of ever more destructive encroachment by extractive and environmentally damaging industries.

I first visited the upper Amazon region of Ecuador in 1969-70 when I lived and traveled through the then pristine Amazon regions bordering the Napo River, and was privileged to visit several indigenous communities (including the Huaorani/ Waorani and Achuar people).

I returned to the region on a research trip in 1999 to see for myself how this unique world had changed during my lifetime. I was appalled buy what my Huaorani hosts showed me as a result of the impact of oil exploration and extraction on their health and environment. I traveled with them to several sites that were at least as damaged by oil spills and dumps (in “piscinas”) like those shown in the film “Crude” – which, in my my view, if anything understates the impact on the culture, environment and the ecosystems that have sustained these communities for millennia.

The Huaorani community I visited (in the remote Shiripuni region) had been forced to relocate there since their traditional homeland had become unsustainable as a result of the massive intrusion of oil industry machinery and associated contamination and deforestation. I also visited the regions around Lago Agrio featured in the film, and witnessed the total transformation that the oil industry has cause to the environment integrity, health and well-being of traditional indigenous people there, with the associated often violent social destruction of their way of life.

The reported federal judgment that filmmaker Joe Berlinger must turn over his outtakes to Chevron’s defense lawyers strikes me as an arbitrary and dangerous interpretation of the First Amendment. The role of independent documentary filmmakers has almost totally replaced what was historically the function of investigative journalism – in fact there is no difference between the methodology and social/political function of filmmakers like Berlinger and that of – say – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal.

Without such scrutiny, It is my opinion that the ever-increasing corporate malfeasance would go unchecked, to the detriment of society as a whole. It is an intrinsic facet of our democratic system that such independent scrutiny is allowed the full protection of the law.

The cynical dismissal of the film “Crude” as “…a case of a lawyer who decided he wanted to be a movie star” would be laughable if it were not so obviously disingenuous, self-serving and untrue.

Documentary filmmakers of course have the right to include, structure and interpret their raw material in any way they chose – just as a journalist will draw on his or her research notes to compile a coherent narrative story. Film material is edited in just this way, and for whatever reason some footage may be left out, it remains the intellectual property of the filmmaker and he or she is under no obligation to hand it over to anyone. It is a right – just as that held by journalists – protected under the First Amendment. Whatever the legality of the case against Chevron, the principle is unchanged.

Also posted on

Gordon Quinn, Jerry Temaner Talk Early Kartemquin Films at Columbia

Just over a week ago, Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner came to Columbia College to participate in the “Art, Access & Action” Summit at Columbia and talk with documentary students (and others) about documentary filmmaking and how filmmaking and society has changed since the era when great early Kartemquin films like What the Fuck are These Red Squares? and Hum 255 were made.

The discussion featured a screening of What the Fuck are These Red Squares?.

Here's a synopsis of the film:

Striking students meet at a “Revolutionary Seminar” at the Art Institute of Chicago in response to the invasion of Cambodia and the killing of protesting students at Kent and Jackson State Universities. They explore their role as artists in a capitalist society and issue questions like: What are the implications of the artist's elitist position in America? Is it possible not to be co-opted, as “radical” as one's art may be? What are the connections between money and art in America? between the “New York Scene” and the rest of the country?

The conversation was filmed and video of the conversation may be posted on the Viva Documentary website in the near future. For those of you who missed it, the discussion got into how discourse has changed since the 1960s, why students protested during Vietnam and why there aren't many students protesting the wars in the Middle East right now, whether spontaneous conversation like this could be filmed for a documentary in today's world, and whether young people are turned on to the most pressing social and cultural issues of the day.

The conversation was very free-form with Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner offering many anecdotes from their experiences as filmmakers throughout the past decades. Both shared memories of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and the fascinating sight of young people at pay phones letting their parents know that they were alright and their parents shouldn't be worried about them (this as shots of police beating young protesters were being shown on television).

Following the early Kartemquin films discussion, Gordon Quinn participated in a talk about fair use, copyright and the commons with accomplished PBS filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein.

The two used the document, “Best Practices in Fair Use”, to go through examples from their experiences as documentary filmmakers. Each example touched on an element of the “Fair Use” document, which is a document for filmmakers which empowers them against those who might suggest they don't have the right to use certain material in their work. “Fair use” allows a filmmaker to “quote copyrighted material without asking permission or paying for it” (in some circumstances). It’s what keeps copyright law from being total censorship.

That conversation was filmed, too. And it will be made available to the public sometime in the not-so-distant future as well.

If you enjoyed these documentary events, please comment on this. And if you would like to see more documentary events at Columbia, stay tuned.

Along with the upcoming International Student Documentary Competition Fundraiser, World Shorts, there are plans in the works.

The New Americans and Me

Jose from The New Americans
Looking back, I can find all types of moments that may have foreshadowed my love for documentary but if there was a time that truly made me commit to non-fiction, it was my last year at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. The design of the film program at that time was that you make a choice at the thesis level; make a narrative film in 16mm snyc-sound or a documentary in digital video with the Canon XL1. The year that followed stretched me and challenged me in so many ways that I realized that documentary filmmaking makes you eat, sleep and breathe film in the way that my Production 1 teacher, Mike Covell, talked about in my first real film class. At that age all I wanted to do was change the world and documentary gave me to tools to do so.

My thesis film followed a bus full of immigration rights activists for 8 days as they lobbied and rallied in Washington D.C. with thousands of others from around the country. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride marked the beginning of a new civil rights movement that combined the issues of all immigrants instead of just one population. I knew little about all this when I stepped on the bus and I probably never would have if I hadn’t taken a leap into something completely foreign to me but I was college so I took the chance.

In a tiny way, getting on that bus was like the immigrant experience. I left home with a few bags and a camera and I lived among a group of people that I knew very little about. Feelings of displacement, helplessness, pride and acceptance were some that I was able to sample during those 8 days and 9 nights. I was different when I returned but I still didn’t have the language to articulate my new outlook on life. I was a kid with 30 hours of footage and about 10 hours of experience in non-linear, digital editing. Lily Buroskowski helped me manage the footage and look for the story but it was a grueling 4 months of bad edits and do overs.

It was in this venerable state that I first encountered The New Americans. Steve James, a Southern Illinois alum and Academy Award nominated director of Hoop Dreams, was screening his series, The New Americans during The Big Muddy Film Festival. The film was spread out over 3 days which meant that we were able to watch it the way that Kartemquin preferred. The series still hadn’t aired on television and we had the privilege of listening to Steve James, who was there for a Q & A after part 1. I spoke to him briefly about my thesis project and he was very encouraging. The details of the conversation are blurred by my star-struck memory but I’m sure I sounded like a nervous little fanboy so I still appreciate how kind he was.

I couldn’t agree more with Kartemquin’s claim that The New Americans intimately connects viewers to its subjects. This was the first series that I’d seen that was able to follow immigrant families from their home countries to the United States and one of the largest payoffs to this approach comes in the story of Jose and Riccardo, two baseball players that the L.A. Dodgers recruit from the Dominican Republic.The juxtaposition between Riccardo, an unmistakable talent, and Jose, a poor boy who can play, gives us a wide range of information about why families pin in their hopes to something as fickle as a professional baseball career. There are echoes of this relationship when Jose and Riccardo negotiate contracts with management and are happy to have check for $5,000 for a season while their U.S. born counterparts won’t consider playing for under a million dollars.

The Nigerian story of Ogoni Refugees, Israel and Ngozi shows a completely different approach to the story because we are introduced to Israel and Ngozi Nwidor after they’ve lived for a refugee camp for 2 years and are about to make the transition of starting a new life in America. This storyline requires a backstory to explain the circumstances that brought the Nwidor family, and many other Ogonis, to this point.

Isreal’s optimism serves as a reminder of what makes people risk their futures to come to the U.S. A scene where Ngozi and Isreal send a portion of their earnings shows some of the pressure that most immigrant families are under to maintain the image of the American Dream in the eyes of family back at home. Even though they are suffering through hardships, they still have to send money back home and tell everyone that they are doing well.

Watching the Nwidor family experience America for the first time is an amazing thing. When the refugees are first given McDonald’s hamburgers it’s as if they’ve finally arrived in the land of opportunity. It’s a food that I do everything in my power to avoid but watching Isreal eat one makes me appreciate what it would mean to appreciate it without even knowing what’s inside. His excitement to learn what goes on the outside and what is in the middle shows that, like anyone on the brink of change, he doesn’t know what he’s in for.

The last story that’s introduced in the first part of the series is of Naima Saadeh, a Palestinian bride that is determined to leave her small town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where she has lived her whole life. We get to know Naima as she goes through a typical commute to school. She needs to take three taxi-vans and cross an Israeli checkpoint to get to school. We get some of the back story of the situation in the West Back through letters that her brother, Jihad, wrote to her while imprisoned for his role in the youth movement during the Intifada. I love the scene for it’s emotional power, the amount of information communicated and because they allow Naima to break the fourth wall by telling Jihad that “They” asked to see the letters.

The relationship between of Naima and her fiance, first-generation Palestinian American Hatem Abudayyeh, is fascinating because of the differences between the way they view Naima’s life. Hatem is offended to see Naima and all of his people have to travel through checkpoints. There’s also a scene where Hatem sheds a tear for the story of one of his father’s tenants. Naima, on the other hand, doesn’t find her story as tragic and seems uncomfortable that her husband is so moved and she isn’t.

The tapestry that’s woven with these 3 stories creates a depth that couldn’t be achieved by focusing on an individual family. However, Kartemquin’s approach doesn’t cheat any of the characters out of their own complexity. That’s why I’ve found it so easy to find parallels between The New Americans and my own life last time I watch it as well as this time. The issues that are bought out of the lives of these families translate to the lives of anyone that is in transition.

The feelings of displacement that I felt when I was on a bus full of strangers is the same as those that Jose and Ricardo felt when they were brought up by the Dodgers. The helplessness that Isreal and Ngozi felt in trying to advance at their jobs is similar to my having a mountain of footage and no knowledge of how to edit it and the feeling that I had as I neared graduation echoed Naima’s experience as she passed her exam and prepared for her new life in America. As the series is rebroadcast, I find myself in a similar transition as I assimilate into the culture of documentary filmmakers and begin a new chapter in my own life. I can’t wait to see what this series holds for me this time around.

The filmmakers behind The New Americans will be visiting the Viva Doc online forum soon. To read more about that, click here.

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