"Illinois Humanities' support of documentary films is often that critical first grant. Ranging from Academy Award winners and nationally broadcast events, to films used in educational institutions and local communities, these documentaries tell our stories and are rich and emotional commentaries on our history and culture." --Gordon Quinn, Founder and Artistic Director, Kartemquin Film
Since its founding in 1973, Illinois Humanities has provided key support to filmmakers striving to tell the stories of our state, the nation and the world through documentary film. Our funded films have been broadcast nationally on public television, toured film festivals around the globe, and won many honors and accolades, including Academy Awards. Illinois Humanities particularly prides itself on providing the crucial seed money for documentary film projects to generate momentum for future funding.
Documentaries Funded by Illinois Humanities
Illinois Humanities-Supported Documentary Films*
Illinois Humanities is often the first funder for documentary films, but is also often the last, funding engagement activities such as screenings and discussions, as well. Below, please find information more than 70 films made and completed with the support of Illinois Humanities through its Community Grants program. In addition to synopses of each film, included are links to web resources where the film is available for purchase. Many of these films are also accessible on VHS and/or DVD from the Illinois State Library, via the ILLNET catalog online.
*If you have received a media or community grant from Illinois Humanities and do not see your film listed here, please email or call us at 312.422.5580.
2001 / 116 min.
For two years, filmmaker Maria Finitzo followed five strong young women between the ages of 13 and 17. Unlike the myriad reports, books and “specials” that focus on young women as passive and powerless, 5 Girls explores the ways these girls discover the resources necessary to successfully navigate the rocky waters of adolescence. It focuses on the positive ways girls learn to adapt to challenge in their lives by understanding and exercising choices, by believing in their strength when others do not and by resisting powerful cultural messages, which urge them to be silent.
About Face: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Soldiers of World War II - 2004 - Steve Karras & Rose Lizarraga
Producer and/or Director: Steve Karras & Rose Lizarraga
2004 / 60 min.
The film is a feature-length documentary that tells the remarkable, yet previously untold story of thousands of young Jewish immigrants who fled Germany and Austria in the early days of Hitler’s regime, only to perform an “about face” returning to confront their oppressors as American GI’s and British Tommie’s in WWII. About Face does not focus on the camps, the ghetto uprisings or the victimization of the Jewish people. Instead, it depicts the uniquely powerful and unexpected experiences of the Jewish refugees-turned soldiers, who fought with distinction in the US and Allied Armed Forces as combat infantrymen, paratroopers, and interrogators in counter intelligence and military intelligence positions.
2005 / 95 min.
AFTER INNOCENCE tells the dramatic and compelling story of the exonerated – innocent men wrongfully imprisoned for decades and then released after DNA evidence proved their innocence. The film focuses on the gripping story of seven men and their emotional journey back into society and efforts to rebuild their lives. Included are a police officer, an army sergeant and a young father sent to prison and even death row for decades for crimes they did not commit.
Special Jury Prize, Sundance Film Festival; Audience Award, Independent Film Festival of Boston
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): A History - 1996 - Diane Garey & Lawrence Hott
Producer and/or Director: Diane Garey & Lawrence Hott
1996 / 57 min.
This film charts the history of the American Civil Liberties Union from World War I to the present. The origins of the ACLU as an organization created to enforce the Bill of Rights are discussed in great detail. The film also spends a significant amount of time discussing Roger Baldwin, the founder of the ACLU. Through a thought-provoking historical analysis of the types of struggles the organization has taken part in, viewers are made aware of the delicate balance between the rights of individuals and the rights of groups or of the government. The ACLU’s dedication to defending the extremes of society, from the most liberal to the most conservative, show not only how this controversial organization has been essential to American liberty, but also how it has contributed to the discussion about the tension between legal rights and moral laws.
1991 / 102 min.
Winner of the 1991 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, this film captures working men and women making tough choices about survival during a time of economic crisis in the American Midwest. American Dream also won the 1992 Director’s Guild of America Award for Best Feature Documentary and the 1991 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award and the Filmmaker’s Trophy.
2017 / 56 min.
Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the 20th Century’s most influential architect, redefined architecture when he designed the B. Harley Bradley House in Kankakee, Illinois. To many scholars, this single family home represents Wright’s first complete foray into the “Prairie Style.” Despite this distinction, the structure has remained relatively overlooked in Wright’s lexicon. An American Home intends to share the story of this architectural treasure and explore its uncanny connection to the rise, fall, and resurgence of its designer and the community in which it resides.
2006 / 56 min.
American Roots Music tells the story of Chicago’s musical heritage, including the blues, gospel, and folk music. Particular emphasis is placed on how this heritage emerged from the migration of numerous cultures to Chicago.
And They Came to Chicago: The Italian American Legacy - 2007 - Gia M. Amella
2007 / 76 min.
The film traces the 150-year history of the Italians of Chicago, from the early settlers whose distinct regional customs and traditions laid the foundation for burgeoning Italian enclaves, to how Italian Americans helped steer the course of Chicago’s history. We look at Italian-American contributions to the world of politics, labor, the arts and culture, and pay tribute to the unsung heroes of our community. Combining rare historical footage and photographs, revealing interviews with noted Italian Americans, historians, community and business leaders, and folks from the “old neighborhood,” this program journeys to the heart of a unique and vibrant community for an unforgettable celebration of Chicago’s Italian American legacy.
Artifacts and Heavy Timber: The Reconstruction of Fort Massac - 2005 - Richard Kuenneke
2004 / 60 min.
A one-hour documentary on the reconstruction of an historically accurate, early American frontier fort on the Ohio River near Metropolis Illinois. The film highlights the work of Paul Maynard, Illinois’ first professionally trained archaeologist, who used the emerging science to excavate the French Colonial and early American site.
Public Service Award, Illinois Archaeological Society (2005)
The Atom Smashers - 2008 - Clayton Brown and Monica Ross
Producer and/or Director: Clayton Brown and Monica Ross
2008 / 73 min.
The Atom Smashers chronicles the search for the Higgs boson: a yet-undiscovered subatomic particle that could explain how matter – and, therefore, life – can exist. To find this “god particle,” top physicists at Fermilab use the Tevatron, a four-mile-long, forty-year-old particle accelerator buried beneath the Illinois prairie. However, a new, more powerful accelerator at Europe’s CERN laboratory looms on the horizon…
Part science, part international competition, and part human drama, The Atom Smashers watches its captivating characters in and out of the laboratory as they race along the intersections of politics, culture, and the possibility of the discovery of a lifetime.
A Beautiful River: Rediscovering the Ohio - 1991 - Jane Goetzman
1991 / 58 min.
This film focuses on the towns that border the Ohio River, highlighting the river’s history and the recent resurgence of riverside activity. After facing a severe economic slowdown in the 80s, especially when important industrial jobs were eliminated, several river communities have begun rejuvenating the river, rediscovering it as the heart of their town. The river, which was recently plagued with pollution and regarded as dangerous and unappealing, is now benefiting from heightened environmental awareness and clean up efforts. The film details these developments via a journey down the entire length of the river, from Pennsylvania to Illinois.
1988 / 58 min.
This color documentary examines Lao patterns of life in the U.S. by reference to Lao religious and cultural traditions and explores how native-born Americans perceive these new immigrants. The film is a vivid record of the Lao acculturation process.
Best Documentary, Atlanta Film & Video Festival; Award of Excellence, Society for Visual Anthropology
Body and Soul: Diana and Kathy - 2007 - Alice Elliott
2007 / 40 min.
A documentary about two friends with intellectual disabilities -Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy- that, despite great odds, have lived independently together for 37 years. The documentary follows the daily lives of these friends currently living in Springfield to illustrate the normalcy and independence that they have achieved and to correct misconceptions about the capacities of people with this type of disabilities.
The Legend of Charlie Birger - 2003 - David Kidd
Producer and/or Director: David Kidd / Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
1976 / 60 min.
For more than 75 years, the Chicago Maternity Center provided safe home deliveries for Chicago mothers. However, when modern medicine’s attitude toward home birth changed and funding from Northwestern University declined in 1974, the center was forced to close. This film interweaves the history of the center with the stories of a young woman about to have her first baby and the center’s fight to stay open in the face of the corporate takeover of medicine.
1993 / 55 min.
This documentary focuses on the Chicago theatre scene over the past 25 years. The film explores the qualities that make the Chicago scene different from those in Los Angeles or New York, specifically the resilience of small playhouses and the experimental tendencies that infuse both Chicago actors and theatre companies. These same qualities, unfortunately, make it difficult to survive as a working actor in Chicago, a problem which plagues the theatre community and that is explored in depth throughout the documentary. Although several famous actors started their careers in Chicago, including John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, and John and Joan Cusack, all moved away in order to further their careers. As playhouses become more abundant, actors in Chicago increasingly struggle to survive while sustaining their hallmark quality: creative innovation. This film raises issues pertinent to the current theatre scene in Chicago and beyond.
Citizen Soldiers: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War - 1997 - Dennis Miller
1997 / 56 min.
Citizen Soldier is a documentary about the Vietnam Veterans who fought in the Vietnam War and then came back to fight against that same war. It is also a story about how activism became a way to combat lingering memories about that war. Told from the viewpoint of the veterans, it discribes how they came to oppose the war that they had just fought in. It also illustrates of a lifetime of activism has become an essential part of their lives.
Count Me In - 2016 - Ines Sommer
At a time when voter frustration is mounting, there’s finally a good news story about money and voting: COUNT ME IN highlights an innovative experiment in direct democracy that gives ordinary Chicagoans direct say over local public projects and monies. Pioneered in Chicago, participatory budgeting is rapidly spreading across the country and even the White House recently made it one of its key recommendations for open government.
The first in-depth documentary about this burgeoning national movement, COUNT ME IN tells the compelling stories of regular Chicagoans who are rolling up their sleeves to make an impact in their neighborhoods. The film shows residents pitch ideas for street repairs, bike lanes, or community gardens. Projects get researched, proposals crafted, and at the end, the entire community is invited to vote.
1999 / 59 min.
Set in Farmer City, Illinois, this documentary video examines the weekly musical ministry of the First Christian Church and its unique combination of country western and southern gospel music with the traditional practices of devotional service.
1992 / 60 min.
In this documentary, the life and times of Richard J. Daley and the city he so profoundly influenced are discussed. The film tells the lively story of this most controversial and powerful urban politician, whose life provides critical insight into several important themes of 20th century history.
Dvorak and America - 2000 - Lucille Carra & Brain Cotnoir
2000 / 60 min.
This film explores Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s three years in the U.S. between 1892 and 1895. Combining archival material, never-before-released letters, and musical compositions, the film examines the historical and cultural context of Dvorak’s visit to America with a particular focus on the ethnic groups from which he drew musical influence, particularly the African-American community.
Early History of the Illinois Indians - 2006 - Jeffrey A. Specker & Daniel W. Hechenberger
Producer and/or Director: Jeffrey A. Specker & Daniel W. Hechenberger
2006 / 58 min.
A number of states are named after Native American Tribes, and one of them is the state of Illinois. But where are the Illinois today? Journeying through the early history of the Illinois with David Froman, Peoria tribe member and Illinois descendant, this hour-long documentary looks at the first contacts between the Illinois and European explorers.
First Person Singular: John Hope Franklin - 1997 - Dick Young
1997 / 60 min.
Track the career of octogenarian John Hope Franklin, the historian who rewrote U.S. history. His major work, FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM, forever changed historians’ perceptions of the African-American role in building America. Franklin describes the difficulties of growing up black in America: slights, strife, opportunities denied. Yet against a grim backdrop, his indomitable spirit shines through, in an uplifting tale of triumph over adversity.
For My People: The Life and Writing of Margaret Walker - 1998 - Judith McCray
1998 / 27 min.
For My People: The Life and Writing of Margaret Walker gives the long-overdue recognition to one of the seminal figures of American literature. Margaret Walker has been described by scholar Jerry Ward as “a national treasure” and by Nikki Giovanni as the “most famous person nobody knows.” Her signature poem, For My People, written when she was 22, set a tone and a level of commitment which African American literature has been responding to ever since.
Frank Yankovic: America's Polka King - 1995 - Thomas Ciesielka
1995 / 60 min.
This film presents the life of polka musician Frank Yankovic and his role in Polka music history. The program examines Yankovic’s lifelong passion “to keep polka alive,” which has resulted in the creation of a uniquely American genre that incorporates elements of Slovenian music. This is a lively film that includes several of Yankovic’s signature songs.
Funny Ladies: A Portrait of Women Cartoonists - 1991 - Pamela Beere Briggs
1991 / 45 min.
This dynamic film highlights four women cartoonists in the United States: Nicole Hollander, Lynda Barry, Dale Mesick, and Cathy Guisewite. These cartoonists prove to viewers that women hold an important position in the cartooning world, although their success has long gone unrecognized. Each cartoonist approaches the creative process differently in terms of the way she creates dialogue, the issues she focuses on in her strips, and the actual drawing process. The viewer gains an appreciation for the intensity of the process and the communicative power of the cartoonist in dealing with current issues, especially their political and psychological ramifications.
Gold Star Mothers: A Pilgrimage of Remembrance - 2003 - Alison Davis Wood
2003 / 57 min.
For 6,000 women whose sons or husbands were lost in World War I and buried in foreign graves, a pilgrimage to see their loved one’s final resting place brought a measure of comfort. In the 1930s, when mothers had heroic stature in the eyes of the nation, the government took thousands of them on trips across the ocean to visit cemeteries in Europe. This one-hour documentary, produced by WILL-TV, tells the story of the emotional Gold Star journeys that, for many women, involved their first travel outside their own communities. The program also describes how mothers wielded political power to get Congress to approve the Gold Star pilgrimages, and how the segregation of African American women on the trips contributed to the decision of many black voters to leave the Republican Party. The documentary also follows some of today’s Gold Star Mothers, who lost sons in Vietnam, as they make modern-day pilgrimages to see where their loved ones died.
Golub - 1988 - Jerry Blumenthal & Gordon Quinn
Producer and/or Director: Jerry Blumenthal & Gordon Quinn
1988 / 56 min.
Leon Golub’s massive canvasses depict scenes most of us would prefer not to see ? mercenary killings, torture, and death squads. Golub offers not simply a profile of a painter with a political conscience, but an investigation into the power of the artist to reflect our times and to change the way we think about our world. This one-hour film juxtaposes scenes of violence and political repression around the world, statements by American politicians and others, the responses of viewers to Golub’s exhibitions and an extended sequence capturing the artist at work.
INPUT ’91, Dublin Ireland, 1991, Official Selection
Golub: Late Works Are the Catastrophes - 2005 - Jerry Blumenthal & Gordon Quinn
Producer and/or Director: Jerry Blumenthal & Gordon Quinn
2005 / 80 min.
Kartemquin Films completes its chronicle of the work and times of the American artist, Leon Golub. Begun in 1985, the film ends with Golub’s death in 2004, taking us from searing images of interrogations and torture to the ironies and dark humor of old-age.
2001 / 43 min.
In the 1930s, Malvina Hoffman, a female sculptor and protege of Auguste Rodin, was commissioned by the Chicago Field Museum to make a series of 104 life-size figures depicting the different races of the world. Those who commissioned her deemed Hoffman’s exhibit as more of an anthropological than an artistic endeavor. This film focuses on Hoffman’s struggle to reconcile her artistic vision with the outdated and obscure demand that she classify by race. Questions related to the veracity of classifications based on race and how best to represent an entire race with an individual specimen led to the dismantling of the Hall of Man in 1968. The debate continues over what to do with such a fine artistic collection, as currently only a fraction of the sculptures are on display in the museum.
1997 / 57 min.
This film documents the cultural and ethnic diversity found along the 400 mile stretch ending in Chicago’s Halsted Street. Beginning in quiet, rural, predominantly white Illinois along Route 1, the film continues north to the outskirts of Chicago, where gang violence brews and local residents are primarily people of color. The journey takes viewers through the Stockyards District of Chicago, Bridgeport, Pilsen, Maxwell Street, Cabrini Green, Lincoln Park, and, finally, all the way up to BoysTown on Chicago’s north side. The film incorporates footage from a 1932 Documentary Films on the same subject. The film is compelling because it clearly shows the differences in socioeconomic status, cultural celebrations, gender specification, and racial composition of the communities that lie along a street that winds its way through 14 different counties.
The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance - 2011 - Stephen Parry
2011 / 60 min.
Narrated by Garrison Keillor, The Hayloft Gang is a one-hour documentary film that tells the story of a changing America, through the lens of one of early radio’s most popular and influential programs. From the Great Depression through the hardships of World War II, the National Barn Dance celebrated the folk traditions that were fading in an increasingly urbanized America.
Hero Street: A Historical Documentary Film Series - 2015 - Fourth Wall Films
Hero Street, a multi-part documentary series by Fourth Wall Films, explores the compelling true story of eight Mexican-American heroes from Hero Street, USA in Silvis, Illinois. There are personal and family sagas behind each of the eight heroes and tells the compelling true story of an ongoing struggle to memorialize Tony Pompa, Frank Sandoval, William Sandoval, Claro Solis, Peter Masias, Joseph Sandoval, Joseph Gomez and John S. Muños.
The series combines interviews with family members, friends, veterans, community leaders and historians with vintage photos, film, and archival materials to tell an unforgettable story of American courage, character and perseverance.
Illinois Humanities funded three films in this series: A Bridge Too Far From Hero Street (2019), An Infantryman from Hero Street (2022) and The Last to Fall from Hero Street (2024).
A five part video program, “The Historic Great Lakes,” examines related issues over a wide span of time rather than simply presenting the history chronologically. Each hour-long segment helps to define the region in terms of culture, politics, and natural history.
The HistoryMakers: Three Artists, Three Lives, Three Stories - 2001 - The HistoryMakers
2001 / 122 min.
This endearing film explores the lives of three Chicago-based artists: photographer Dawoud Bey, painter Richard Hunt, and collage artist Allen Stringfellow. The film presents each artist’s process, philosophy, and vision of the future of art. Throughout the film, each artist periodically adds various bits of wisdom that stick with the viewer, such as the importance of the process of discovery.
Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train - 2001 - Deb Ellis & Denis Mueller
Producer and/or Director: Deb Ellis & Denis Mueller
2001 / 78 min.
This film documents the life and times of the historian, activist and author of the best selling classic A People’s History of the United States. Featuring rare archival materials, interviews with Howard Zinn as well as colleagues and friends including Noam Chomsky, Marian Wright Edelman, Daniel Ellsberg, Tom Hayden and Alice Walker, YOU CAN’T BE NEUTRAL captures the essence of this activist and thinker who has been a catalyst for progressive change for more than 60 years. As Noam Chomsky has said of him, “it is no exaggeration to say he has changed the consciousness of a generation.”
Audience Award for Best Documentary, 2004 Provincetown International Film Festival
Huele De Noche: Night Blooming Jasmine: Santa Clara del Cobre, Mochoacan, Mexico - 2001 - Michele Feder-Nadoff
In Mr. Lincoln's Footsteps - 1992 - Mark Wancket
In the Family - 2008 - Joanna Rudnick
Inland Voyages: The Poetry of John Knoepfle - 1995 - James F. Scott
Jamesie: King of Scratch - 2006 - Andrea E. Leland
John Peter Altgeld: The Eagle Remembered - 2001 - Jeffrey Chown
Knute Rockne and His Fighting Irish - 1993 - Lawrence Hott & Diane Garey
The Last Kamikaze - 2007 - Masami Takahashi
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg - 2001 - Aviva Kempner
Lincoln and Black Hawk - 2005 - Jeffrey Chown and Drew VandeCreek
The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today - 2010 - Jay Rosenstein
Louder Than a Bomb - 2009 - Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel
Make No Little Plans: Daniel Burnham and the American City - 2009 - Judith McBrien
Mazamorreo: In Search of Memory - 2000 - Claudia Navas-Courbon
Midnight Ramble: The Story of the Black Film Industry - 1995 - Pearl Bowser
Mirroring Hispanic Culture: Murals in Chicago - 1987 - Julia K. Kurtz & Susan Dobinsky
The New Americans - 2004 - Gordon Quinn
The Optimists - 1997 - Jacky Comforty
Passionate Nature: Alfred Caldwell's Chicago Parks - 2006 - June Finfer
The Real Dirt on Farmer John - 2006 - Taggart Siegel
Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm and Blues - 1996 - Michael D. McAlpin
Refrigerator Mothers - 2002 - David E. Simpson
A River Called Ohio - 1994 - Tom Weidlinger
Romance of a People: The First 100 Years of Jewish History In Chicago, 1833 - 1933 - 1997 - Beverly Siegel
Shadow Over Tibet: Stories in Exile - 1994 - Rachel V. Lyon
Shaping the Waterways - 1994 - Steven Spiers & Theo Karamanski
Struggles for Environmental Justice and Health in Chicago - 2005 - Sylvia Hood Washington & Ines Sommer
Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press - 1996 - Rick Goldsmith
Ten Sisters: A True Story - 2006 - Tim Hartin
Terra Incognita - 2007 - Maria Finitzo
They Served With Honor - 1995 - Craig Lindvahl
Ties That Bind - 2006 - Ann Feldman
A Time for Honor: Stories from Vietnam - 2001 - Craig Lindvahl & Joseph Fatheree
Tony & Janina's American Wedding - 2010 - Ruth Leitman
Trailblazers: Korean American Women Ahead of Their Time - 2010 - Jan Pak Oh & KOWIN Chicago Chapter
Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern - 1997 - Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher
Typeface - 2009 - Justine Nagan
Victory on the Homefront: Rememberances of Richland & Lawrence Counties During WWII - 1996 - David Denton
Waiting to Inhale - 2003 - Jed Riffe
Watch the Pallino - 2006 - Stephanie Foerster
The Weather Underground - 2003 - Sam Green and Bill Siegel