Documentary filmmaker Justine Nagan, AM’04, has been a dedicated, socially conscious film producer for years, but it was a simple craving for ice cream that led to her directorial debut film, Typeface

Not long after completing the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH) at the University of Chicago, Nagan was traveling back from a wedding in Door County and stopped in Two Rivers, Wis., the self-proclaimed birthplace of the ice cream sundae. While exploring the small town she stumbled upon the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum, the site of a factory that has manufactured wood type for old-fashioned printing presses since 1880 but is now struggling to preserve its century-old craft. “We were there two or three hours,” Nagan said of her tour, “and midway through I was raising my eyebrows at my husband, saying, ‘This is big. There could be something here.’”

Compelled to tell Hamilton’s story, Nagan turned to three of her filmmaking friends from MAPH for help. Together with fellow 2004 grads Starr Marcello, Tom Bailey, and Brendan Kredell, she began making the three-hour trip to Two Rivers on a regular basis, gathering stories and filming people and events in the town and museum. The economy of the small town—once dependent upon the vitality of this factory and now dependent upon the museum—was floundering in the face of 21st-century indifference to this antiquated product and the time-consuming process of old-fashioned letter-pressing. “The more time we spent [at Hamilton], the more wonderful people we met, and I realized that there was a larger societal story playing out in Two Rivers.” At the time, Nagan was the director of communications and distribution for the Chicago-based documentary film company Kartemquin. Moved by the testimonies of the people she spoke to, she approached her boss to ask for his support of the film.

That boss was Gordon Quinn, AB’65, who along with Jerry Temaner, AB’57, and Stanley Karter, X’66, had founded Kartemquin Films in 1966 based on the artistic ideal of “cinematic social inquiry.” This philosophy is rooted in the belief that using film to reflect society back on itself can facilitate systemic societal change. The founders’ artistic mission has translated into the making of dozens of films that document the often untold stories of people around the world, focusing on social issues such as healthcare, labor, racism, and more. Among the company’s many critically acclaimed films are the Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams (1994) and Stevie (2002), honored at the 2003 Sundance Festival for its cinematography.

 “Typeface was an unusual subject for a Kartemquin film,” says Gordon Quinn, AB'65. “But Justine’s passion for the subject is what drew me in.”  When Nagan approached Quinn, she was convinced that her fledgling film about the Hamilton Museum contained a message that was in keeping with Kartemquin’s ethos. Quinn, at first, was not certain. “Typeface was an unusual subject for a Kartemquin film,” Quinn recalls. “But Justine’s passion for the subject is what drew me in and the film’s phenomenal success has borne out how important this is. We have all learned about a new audience.” Released in 2009, Typeface continues to garner attention at screenings around the world, to win awards including best documentary at the 2009 Flyway Film Festival, and to join the rosters of an increasing number of international festivals. 

In 2008, Nagan became the executive director of Kartemquin, a leadership role in which she hopes to shape the company’s future mission and business strategies for its second 40 years. Her career path began at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she studied journalism and communications. After graduating, she worked as an editor and producer for Wisconsin public television and then for a small media company, committed to translating her longtime passion for social justice into film production. But when she was confined to a dark, windowless editing room for hours on end, Nagan realized that she missed the social aspect of filmmaking. Though the film projects to which she contributed were reaching thousands of people, she wanted to connect with her audiences more directly and gain a theoretical understanding of the reception and messaging of her work. 

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To that end, she began to look into graduate programs in cinema and media studies and applied to the PhD program at Chicago, though she was unsure if she ultimately wanted to pursue a doctorate. She was not accepted to the doctoral program, but the admissions office recognized her qualifications and offered her a place in MAPH instead. When she received that letter, “everything clicked into place,” she says. “I really liked that the program was interdisciplinary and that it was one intensive year. I felt that for the career I was in, I didn’t want to be out of the workforce that long. The technology of film changes very quickly.”

Days after matriculating in MAPH, Nagan attended a faculty meet-and-greet at which cinema and media studies senior lecturer Judy Hoffman was a panelist. Hoffman introduced herself as an associate of Kartemquin Films, a company which had intrigued Nagan ever since she had seen two of their documentaries at the Wisconsin Film Festival when she was in college. Over coffee, Hoffman encouraged Nagan to become involved with the company as a volunteer. A collaborator with Kartemquin since the 1970s, Hoffman is an accomplished documentary filmmaker who now serves on the company’s board of directors. “I put Justine in touch with Kartemquin,” says Hoffman, “and it was a perfect fit.”

As for Nagan, she is convinced that Kartemquin’s tradition of critical thinking is crucial to making better, more engaging films. “So much of what makes Kartemquin Films distinctive is a really deep level of engagement with the subject matter,” she says. “We have rough-cut screenings of work with the Kartemquin community before a film moves on to the final stage of editing. They are fierce discussions, very open and good-spirited, but very honest about the caliber of the work. I think that that stems from people’s time at the University of Chicago.”

POSTSCRIPT: The UChicago Connection

Kartemquin Films continues to be closely linked with the University of Chicago. Judy Hoffman, senior lecturer in the departments of Cinema and Media Studies and Visual Arts, has regularly recommended students for internships with the company. She also serves on the board of the University’s Human Rights Program, which produced a film series and colloquium in 2005 in honor of Kartemquin’s 40th anniversary, called Truth in Motion: A Retrospective of Kartemquin Films. Hoffman articulates well the contribution of documentary film to academic study: “The look in a person’s eyes, the rising and falling of a voice, the locations and material surroundings—documentary film has the ability to produce and receive knowledge that is different from that of text.”

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