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Taking the Helm at Kartemquin: A Conversation with Jolene Pinder

By Lauren Giella

Jolene Pinder, executive director at Kartemquin Films. Courtesy of Kartemquin Films

For over 50 years, Chicago-based Kartemquin Films has been a leading voice for social justice in the documentary field. Founder/Artistic Director Gordon Quinn works to develop filmmakers, produce films and advocate for the field of documentary. This collaborative group of socially responsible filmmakers is dedicated to promoting dialogue and seeking justice as they examine and critique society through stories of real people. 

Kartemquin has earned four Academy Award nominations, six Emmy awards and four Peabody Awards, among many other accolades. Their films include the iconic 1994 film Hoop Dreams and the Oscar-nominated Minding the Gap

This past May, Kartemquin announced that Jolene Pinder would be their new executive director, following a seven-month search to replace her predecessor, Betsy Steinberg. Pinder oversees all aspects of operations, programs and serves as executive producer on all of Kartemquin’s forthcoming documentaries. 

Before this new position, Pinder was executive director of #CreateLouisiana since 2017, where she led advocacy and grantmaking efforts across the state and region. She also served as the executive director of the New Orleans Film Society for six years, where she grew annual attendance for the New Orleans Film Festival and launched several advocacy and funding initiatives to support southern filmmakers, including Emerging Voices and South Pitch.

"As documentary filmmakers, you draw inspiration from where you live," says Pinder, in a phone conversation a month or so into her tenure. "I felt like you shouldn't have to move to New York or Los Angeles to have a sustainable career as a filmmaker, and if we're really trying to engage these ideas around the problems with extractive storytelling, we have to look at how filmmakers are resourced outside of the coastal hubs."

Pinder studied English at the University of Chicago before earning a Master’s in Journalism and Communications from the University of Florida’s Documentary Institute. Pinder is also a filmmaker herself. She produced the 2018 DOC NYC selection All Skinfolk Ain’t Kinfolk and the Sundance Institute and IDA-funded work-in-progress Hollow Tree, as well as (A)Sexual and worked in various roles on documentaries such as Arctic Son and Election Day during her period as a staff producer at Arts Engine/Big Mouth Productions. 

For Pinder, the return to Chicago is a return to the documentary field, and a new position at Kartemquin will allow her to continue her efforts to support regional filmmakers. "This felt like an opportunity for me to get back to my documentary roots and build on my production background, but also take that experience that I had of finding more robust resources for regional filmmakers," she explains. 

With Kartemquin's commitment to telling stories that foster a more engaged and just society and Pinder's experience supporting underrepresented filmmakers, the company is looking to continue to evolve with the changing landscape of film and society, support the next generation of filmmakers and promote greater sustainability of filmmaking in the Midwest. In order to do so, Pinder is focused on building community through grantmaking, legislation and facilitating conversations about filmmakers' needs. 

When the Kartemquin search committee was looking to fill this position, Pinder stood out for her track record in finding financial support for filmmakers and building programs to support emerging voices. "I think there's quite a lot of fatigue in our field about the fellowships and mentorship," Pinder notes. "That is all very valuable, but at the end of the day it's not always resulting in dollars for projects."

Instead, Pinder worked with Hollywood producers to create a grantmaking program to get these projects made. "We saw the improvement of the projects overall when people had more money to actually put into the craft."

In addition to grantmaking, Pinder uses legislation to generate more funds for filmmakers. In 2017, she was part of a coalition that passed legislation to create a fund to support independent filmmaking and education in the state by carving out some money from the tax incentive. Filmmakers who came to Louisiana to film in the state had to give two percent of any tax incentive they received back to a fund that supported Louisiana filmmakers, which will result in $2.6 million going into the hands of filmmakers and educational institutions supporting filmmakers and workforce training programs. She is invested in crafting a similar support structure for filmmakers in Illinois. 

For Pinder, it wasn’t about just getting the money, but figuring out the best way to spend it. That requires a dialogue between art administrators and filmmakers on the ground.  "I had spearheaded an effort to go around the state and understand how filmmakers wanted to see that money spent and how it could best support them, depending on where they were located," she explains. 

Beyond financial support, open communication flow is essential for understanding other problems filmmakers face and finding solutions. Pinder plans to conduct a series of focus groups with filmmakers from different communities in and around Chicago in order to have more intimate conversations about what they need and how Kartemquin can better serve their needs.

Pinder says her experience as a filmmaker has informed her work as an arts administrator. When she ran the New Orleans Film Festival, she was most concerned about the filmmaker experience. She started a pitching competition, a skill she felt she did not have enough practice within her education and professional career. Working on a film in a specific community has also helped Pinder better understand how regional filmmaking should be approached. When working on the film Hollow Tree, Pinder was in the trenches as a producer in Louisiana. "You have to understand what it means to live in a region that has a history and be able to incorporate that in the storytelling," she maintains. She contrasts this method with a parachuting model, in which filmmakers come into a new place and spend limited time in the region or with the interviewees--a way she says many films about Lousiana have been made. 

Pinder hopes these collaborative convening groups will bring together filmmakers from different backgrounds, career levels and experiences to represent their region and take action to address specific issues they face. "I feel really grounded in this idea of Midwestern filmmakers being able to tell their own stories, and we need to also see diversity as a compelling strength of our work," Pinder asserts. 

Jolene Pinder overseeing Kartemquin Films' 2019 Diverse Voices in Docs (DVID) Funder's Pitch. Courtesy of Kartemquin Films

Documentary filmmaking, especially at Kartemquin, has been about seeking justice and promoting democracy through visual storytelling. Whether covering topics of criminal justice, immigration, environmentalism or health care inequality, documentaries allow a deeper take into the prevalent, systematic issues that people face around the world, but might not be widely known or covered by mainstream news media. As the field of documentary evolves, new questions arise. It is not just about what stories are being told, but who is telling them and how. For Pinder, this means stories about community issues should be told by those living in those communities every day. 

"I think how we talked about documentary, even ten years ago, felt like it was that documentarians are providing a voice for the voiceless, and that feels just like it's completely imploded," Pinder observes. "The idea that someone else needs to elevate your voice doesn't have credence in the way it did ten, 20, 50 years ago when Kartemquin began."

This new shift offers a more critical examination of storytelling that is opening conversations between different generations of filmmakers and brings up important ethical concerns in the field about how documentaries are made. "I think we don't talk enough about ethical concerns in documentary, but this has always been central to the ethos at Kartemquin," Pinder notes. "There is this immense value and a deep experience around finding the story in the editing room that I've just seen at play here."

Pinder credits Gordon Quinn and his ability to raise questions around the ethical treatment of participants and topics and help tease out the best way to convey the story the filmmaker wants to tell visually and editorially. "He can just so quickly get to the heart of a film and really bring the expertise and commitment to helping filmmakers make the best film they can make," Pinder says. "It's really concrete and pragmatic, not just broad, thematic work."

Whether expanding their editing resources to underserved regions, or talking with filmmakers in their own backyard, Kartemquin and Pinder are uplifting the next generation of documentarians pursuing stories that foster a more engaged and just society. With a new slate of filmmakers in co-production with Kartemquin, Pinder is inspired by the diverse voices telling the stories of their own communities and pushing the form of documentary filmmaking. 


Lauren Giella was an editorial intern this past summer at the IDA. She is a senior journalism major at The University of Southern California.