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Kartemquin Films 50: ‘Thumbs Down’ and ‘Parents’

Editor’s Note

Kartemquin Films is a not-for-profit organization in Chicago, which has been producing innovative documentaries to inspire democracy and action for 50 years. To celebrate this milestone, the collaborative group is featuring a film they produced every week, from now until the end of 2016. Each film is available to watch for free until the next film in their catalog is posted every Friday.

From this point onward, I expect to highlight each film with posts aimed at calling attention to the important work Kartemquin has done and how the group has impacted the art of cinema over the past half century. Two films from the early years, “Home for Life,” and “Inquiring Nuns,” have already been featured. I will publish posts about those films in the coming weeks. —Kevin Gosztola

In the early years of Kartemquin Films, the group produced cinéma vérité documentaries. Co-founders Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner were interested in “cinematic social inquiry.” And, at its core, the concept was films could be created to promote social change.

One of the pioneering films produced in 1967 is “Thumbs Down.” It revolves around a parish youth group in the northwest side of Chicago. The youth group decide to “bring liberal ideas” to their conservative parish; specifically, they organize an antiwar mass to encourage parishioners to openly question the Vietnam War.

Jack, a lead organizer of this antiwar mass, faces the prospect of being drafted, and conscientiously objects to being deployed to Vietnam by citing Christian teachings. Also, the politics of Jack and others in the group attract them to the pacifism in Christianity to help them assert their radical politics.

“At this point in the game, I don’t know who to fear more: the United States, who might throw me in jail for what I believe in, or Russia,” Jack declares. “If I was to say in Russia, or China, I’m not going to war for you, they would shoot me or throw me in jail. Well, the United States is doing the same thing, and all I can see is the freedom I do have is to elect between two tyrants, Goldwater or Johnson. Big freedom.”

The film is as much a historical document about a generation of youth, which had to confront the war in Vietnam, as it is about the generational gap youth perceived between their parents and themselves. A twenty-minute companion film, “Parents,” showcases a youth group discussion exploring group members’ feelings about their parents and why they cannot stand them. These feelings are not only typical attitudes an adolescent might have toward their parent but also a product of sociopolitical issues of the period.

Sequences in the film consist of conversations, where the youth group is dealing with all the issues they must address in order to put on this antiwar mass. One of the more compelling scenes takes places as two of the group members are on the phone with the father of their parish. They want him grant permission for a mass about peace and love. He believes the speech should be “balanced.” While the youth group wants to take quotes from the New Testament and popes to make statements to give people the other side, the priest worries they are cherry-picking Christian teachings and are just as guilty of doing what they would condemn if they heard out-of-context citations in a pro-war mass.

In 1967, the neighborhood in which “Thumbs Down” took place consisted of second and third generations of Polish, Italian, and Irish immigrants. The residents were mostly middle class, and according to the youth, about 70% of police lived in this part of the city. Thirty percent of police were estimated to attend this parish. The neighborhood was known to have a number of people, who wanted to live life without having to concern themselves with people of color in the inner city.

Shot in black-and-white with a 16mm camera, the cinematography relies upon constant reframing of scenes through the use of zoom. This enables a discussion to remain engaging and prevents the film from dragging. The sound is also mostly diegetic, meaning these are sounds from within the scene. The filmmakers do not use any narration or sound effects to tell the story. They rely upon the characters of the film to organically provide exposition about their objectives, motives, and feelings.

Roger Ebert commented in his 1967 review, “[Temaner and Quinn] seem to be unusually good at getting people to forget the camera is there; their subjects make decisions, change their minds, debate, argue, reveal themselves, and exhibit none of that self-conscious coyness usually associated with people stuck in front of a camera.”

Indeed, the youth group shares concerns that they may have to take their group underground if their mass angers the parish too much. The stakes are potentially high, but they are confident in their idealism and at ease with expressing their anxieties as the camera rolls.

Watch “Thumbs Down” and “Parents” for free at Kartemquin Films’ website. [Available until January 21.]

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."