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Kartemquin Films 50: ‘Hum 255’

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. —Kevin Gosztola

At the University of Chicago, during the winter quarter of 1968-1969, students protest the firing of Professor Marlene Dixon and occupy an administration building. They sing “We Shall Not Be Moved” and appear on film describing how they view student power. A number of the students see their action as a critique against a “corporate structure or an indictment of the whole system.

Forty-two students were expelled and eighty-one students were suspended for engaging in this action. Kartemquin filmmakers Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner return to film students a year after the suspensions and expulsions. They capture a discussion among students from a humanities course, “Humanities 255 and 256: Documentary Film Workshop.” The class must produce a documentary expressing real concerns they have as a community.

“Hum 255”, a twenty-nine minute film from 1970, shows a discussion among students who meet in a living room and hear from two students who were expelled for occupying the administration building. It builds on the basic tradition of cinematic social inquiry, which Kartemquin filmmakers established in this era.

The film incorporates a cinéma vérité style. All of the lighting and sound is what is taking place in the frame. All of the commentary from students is taking place in this captured moment, as students, radical and non-radical, grapple with prevalent social, political, and cultural issues.

One of the expelled students, a white woman, dominates the discussion with her views about what white people must do to confront racism. She celebrates the work of the Black Panther Party and attempts to clarify the truth of what happened when Fred Hampton was assassinated by police in Chicago because some of the students do not know what they should believe. She is especially drawn to the programs of the Black Panthers—how they provide daycare for children, free breakfast, and free healthcare. The Black Panthers, she says, are not just for black people.

There are a few black students participating in the discussion. One black woman suggests she is only at the university to see firsthand how the education system is setup. She believes based on her experiences that education in the United States mostly builds barriers between her and the people in her community. American society has setup education to “divide people,” she argues.

To some extent, elements of the conversation captured are very similar to discussions students must be having, as they contemplate their role in the Black Lives Matter movement. The black woman in the group advises white students to get a degree, go into whatever field they choose, and then try and educate white people. A few white students seem to be overwhelmed by what they are learning about structures of racism and exhibit a sense of powerlessness.

Often the student activism of the 1960s is romanticized as a golden age for mobilizing against the powerful, but here it could not be more clear that students struggled with whether it was even worth it to take action. Plus, sometimes conversation turned off fellow students, who did not want to be lectured by individuals simply because those individuals thought they had more credibility after being expelled for their activism.

Unlike a previous film of this era, “Thumbs Down,” where young men and women of a parish organize an antiwar mass at their church, there is a much deeper strain of cynicism permeating the discussion. In “Thumbs Down,” there was an idealistic proposal to educate and confront divisions in a community over resistance to the draft and opposition to the Vietnam War.

In “Hum 255,” the filmmakers capture a fleeting moment in time that was probably happening on every college or university campus. They show the many different perspectives students had about whether involving themselves in activism was worth it or not. Those perspectives still exist among students today, even if it often seems like society pays way less attention to the significance of student resistance to institutions of power.

Watch “Hum 255” for free at Kartemquin Films’ website. [Available until January 28.]

An alleyway in Kowloon's Tsim Sha Tsui district- near the Chungking Mansions. (Photo by Zachary Senn)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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