Kartemquin's Success Is Hard Earned

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 20, 2015 3:20PM

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a scene from the new series "Hard Earned" (Kartemquin Films/Al Jazeera America)

What is the true value of jobs that are plentiful but low-wage? We recently read The Unwinding, George Packer's mosaic-like book tracing how American life has changed over the last forty years. Among other things it's an engrossing account of the ways in which the new economy has slowly but steadily chipped away at the foundations of the middle class. This has led to a growing, though frequently invisible, population of Americans whose new normal is living paycheck to paycheck.

Though not based on Packer's book, a new documentary series produced by Chicago's Kartemquin Films presents a similarly wrenching look at some working-class American families. Hard Earned begins airing on Al Jazeera America Sunday, May 3 and over the course of six episodes follows five families as they struggle to keep their heads above water. Two of the families are from the Chicago area. 50-year-old Emilia Stancati from Evergreen Park waitresses full-time after losing her higher-paying union construction job. In Chicago, Takita Akins and her boyfriend De’Jaun “DJ” Jackson are raising two children while barely scraping by with hourly jobs at Walgreens. These and the other people profiled in the series are living illustrations of the consequences of income inequality. Not easy viewing, perhaps, but we live in a media landscape where, if such stories are spotlighted at all, they're usually given mere lip service. Most frequently as an addendum to coverage of the next election cycle. This is what makes Kartemquin's long-form examination so vital.

The local documentary collective has several other projects cooking on the stove. Four of them get a sneak peek at the Gene Siskel Film Center on May 1 at The Kartemquin Spring Showcase 2015, also giving the audience the chance to offer feedback directly to the filmmakers in the theater and at a post-screening reception. All of them sound interesting, but the one that's most intriguing to us is All the Queen's Horses from Kelly Richmond Pope. The filmmaker, who is also a forensic accountant, recounts the story of how former Dixon, Illinois comptroller Rita Crundwell embezzled $53 million from the town over the course of 20 years, the largest municipal fraud in American history. How such blatant theft could go unnoticed for so long is only one facet of what makes the story so grimly fascinating; another is the fact that she spent a great deal of the money running a lavish horse-breeding operation.

After more than 48 years of speaking truth to power, it's gratifying to witness Kartemquin's continued success. And with projects like these, their future seems assured.