At the Oscars this weekend, Chicago’s Kartemquin Films has two shots at victory

SHARE At the Oscars this weekend, Chicago’s Kartemquin Films has two shots at victory

Thomas Sung is founder of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, where his daughters Vera (left) and Jill are executives. The prosecution of the bank is the subject of “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” | KARTEMQUIN FILMS

Gordon Quinn is packing his tuxedo for Sunday’s Oscars — “if the moths haven’t eaten it,” quipped the artistic director of Kartemquin Films, who co-founded the not-for-profit back in 1966.

Two titles produced by Kartemquin Films received unprecedented nominations this year.

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” directed by frequent Kartemquin affiliate Steve James, is up for best documentary feature. James chronicles the saga of a Chinese-American family defending its Abacus Federal Savings Bank against a 240-count indictment. All six members of the Sung family plan to attend the Oscar ceremony. “Abacus,” first seen locally at the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival, airs at 11 p.m. Wednesday on WTTW-Channel 11.

“Edith+Eddie,” directed by Laura Checkoway, is competing for best documentary short. Executive producers of this touching and wrenching portrait of an inter-racial couple who marry in their mid-’90s include James, Quinn and Cher. Yes, that Cher. The Music Box is currently screening “Edith+Eddie” in a program of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary shorts.

“Edith+Eddie” chronicles the romance of Eddie Harrison and Edith Hill. | LAURA CHECKOAWAY/KARTEMQUIN FILMS

“Edith+Eddie” chronicles the romance of Eddie Harrison and Edith Hill. | LAURA CHECKOAWAY/KARTEMQUIN FILMS

James directed and Quinn executive-produced “Hoop Dreams,” Kartemquin’s landmark 1994 documentary about two local high school basketball players. “Before ‘Hoop Dreams,’ [the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] wasn’t even on our radar,” says Quinn, 75, in a phone interview. “We were focused, you know, on changing the world.”

The Academy nominated the highly regarded film in the best editing category, instead of best documentary, and it lost. Industry observers and critics saw a “snub” in that outcome.

James went on to direct “The Interrupters’” (2011) and “LifeItself” (2014) with Quinn as executive producer. Both were discussed as strong candidates for a best documentary nomination, but neither made the cut.

Steve James | GETTY IMAGES

Steve James | GETTY IMAGES

“I have never gotten angry about any of it,” comments James, a 63-year-old Oak Park resident in a phone interview. “It’s the kind of thing where maybe it will happen and maybe it didn’t. I got so much love for those films that not getting nominated for an Academy Award really was not a big deal.”

Adds Quinn, “I’m in the Academy now so I know how it works.” Both he and James are now members of the Academy’s documentary branch.

Attempts to stir buzz don’t always work out for Kartemquin. Quinn recalls the 1968 documentary “Thumbs Down” — produced, directed, shot and edited by him — had an ill-starred screening at the Festival Dei Popoli in Florence, Italy.

“It was the opening film,” recalls Quinn. “It was a big deal. That was the year they [radicals] shut down the festival. They rioted during the film.” Not in protest of his documentary about Chicago teenagers putting on an anti-war Mass, but just because that’s what Europe’s film leftists were doing that year.

Gordon Quinn | GETTY IMAGES

Gordon Quinn | GETTY IMAGES

For an Emmy nomination years ago, Quinn got a tux: “I rented one in New York for about $100. I just about had a heart attack. I put together a tuxedo in case this ever happened again.” He shopped around in Chicago thrift stores for an almost matching coat and trousers. James rents his tuxes, as he did the four times his films were nominated for awards by the Directors Guild of America.

As for the disconnect between Kartemquin’s grassroots ethos and Hollywood’s red carpets, James says, “Living in America you can’t escape irony and contradictions.”

The 90th Academy Awards ceremony airs at 7 p.m. Sunday on WLS-Channel 7.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago freelance writer.

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