In the late 1970s, an unlikely mix of militant black workers, gay and lesbian activists, and women's health movement protestors gathered around a table in New York to talk about the problem they had in common: How to get their banned films on the air.
One of those filmmakers was Gordon Quinn, co-founder of Kartemquin Films, best known for the award-winning documentary, "Hoop Dreams." The film that was banned was "The Chicago Maternity Center Story," a documentary about women's health.
"Over the 45 years we've been around, we've had our battles with freedom of expression issues," said Quinn from his Chicago office. "There were films that didn't get shown on television. But we were always aggressive about pushing them."
On Saturday, Kartemquin Films (KTQ) will receive the Newberry Library's 2010 Altgeld Award for Freedom of Speech. Named for former Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, who lost an election after pardoning three men convicted of the 1886 Haymarket riot, the annual award honors defenders of free speech and ideas.
KTQ, the first documentary company to win the award, is being honored during the library's annual Bughouse Square Debates in Washington Square Park. Past recipients of the award include author Studs Terkel and the American Library Association.
Rachel Bohlmann, director of public programs at the Newberry Library, said KTQ was chosen because it "is such a critical lens of American society" and often picks subjects ignored or misrepresented by the media.
Quinn, 68, did not set out to be a filmmaker. The college he attended in the 1960s, the University of Chicago, offered no film courses. But he and two fellow students joked that one day they would start a film production company.
A few years later, the joke became reality when Quinn was given the opportunity to work on the documentary "Home for Life," about two people at a home for the aged. Quinn learned to edit and shoot on the job, and soon after started Kartemquin Films with Jerry Temaner and Stan Karter. The three students used the first parts of their last names to form the name of their film company.
KTQ's documentaries usually examine society through the stories of real people, because "we want our films to be story driven, having characters, drama and emotion," Quinn said. "And we care about the people in our films, we like and respect them."
Justine Nagan, who replaced Quinn as executive director in 2008, said they are humbled to receive such an award.
"I think we received the award because we make projects not to a particular party line, but to foster an independent voice," she said.
That was evident in the 1970s, when the company took an advocate with such controversial films as "The Chicago Maternity Center Story," which was told through the eyes of a young pregnant woman.
"That's the period when some people thought we were a feminist collective," Nagan said.
In the 80s, KTQ's film "Taylor Chain II" expressed freedom of speech in another way: It was the first time collective bargaining had ever been filmed in the U.S.
"We've continually evolved," Nagan said. "But what's stayed the same is that we have a Midwestern lens and work ethic. And we often reach an international audience."
That proved true in 1994, when KTQ made "Hoop Dreams," a nearly three-hour documentary about two boys from Chicago's projects who dreamed of playing professional basketball.
"It got a lot of people to connect and see inner-city families, people who would never tune in to see public TV about poverty," Quinn said. "It broke down those barriers."
Ryan Jewell, executive editor of the Independent Feature Project, says KTQ has built a local following partly because of its support of the community.
"They watch the films of independent filmmakers, give advice and fiscal sponsorship. They really want to build the community," Ryan said.
KTQ will also contribute to the community through a diversity fellowship, recently created with the help of a MacArthur Grant. Its first fellow, Usama Alshaibi, is making a film about the perceptions of Arab-Americans after 9/11 called "American Arab."
"We saw the lack of opportunity for filmmakers of color in the Midwest and wanted to be a part of the solution for that problem," Nagan said.
"We do make clear where our sympathies lie," Quinn said. "But in this period of history, we try to frame our documentaries to help people understand people better, not divide them apart."