Kartemquin Korner is a weekly-ish segment spotlighting a particular selection from Kartemquin Films, the finest documentary production company this side of the spiral arm of the galaxy. This week’s installment:

The Inquiring Nuns (1968)

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Who wouldn’t want to answer a question from these two smiling nuns? Not surprising that they both left the order within a few years of doing this film- neither one looks like they would enjoy tormenting a child!

 

Co-Directed by Kartemquin founders Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner, The Inquiring Nuns was one of the collective’s first projects. It features music by a very young Phillip Glass and was filmed on Kartemquin’s now legendary first camera. The Inquiring Nuns was inspired by a French film, Chronicle Of A Summer (1960), which itself inspired the cinema verite movement– which in turn led to reality television and the current glut of shows about worthless yet photogenic proto-humans (must take the bad with the good I guess).

 

The Inquiring Nuns features two young nuns (Sister Marie Arne and Sister Mary Campion) traveling around various circa 1968 Chicago locales (the Art Institute, the MSI, a supermarket, outside churches etc.) and asking people the same question posed by its French inspiration, “Are You Happy?”

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This interview also provides an insight into the fact that one used to be able to get a steak in this town for $1.29!

The responses range from the glib to the profound and offer a fascinating glimpse into 1968 Chicago/USA and the human condition in general. At first the project seems like a lark, but becomes increasingly deep as more people open up to the pair of earnest inquisitors. It doesn’t hurt that the filmmakers found the most adorable nuns since Sally Field strapped on her flying habit to ask their question- a far cry from the stern, yardstick wielding Dogmafascists which terrorized me in my youth!

 

Some segments offer hilariously unintended insights into the folks being interviewed, like a couple who were obviously seeing each other on the sly (“Is this going to be shown anywhere?” they ask nervously). Others offer a glimpse more into the relationship dynamics of the couples or the internal lives of the individuals answering the question rather than the question itself.

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One wonders what became of this young boy who emphasized one of his father’s qualifying remarks by forcefully intoning “I am happy TODAY!!!”

 

As one can imagine, the war in Vietnam was foremost on the minds of many interviewees, as well as the social strife of the era in general- but in many ways The Inquiring Nuns points out the cyclical nature of societal trends and how little people really seemed to have changed in the past 50ish years.

 

The Inquiring Nuns works both as a glimpse into the past and as an insight into certain permanent aspects of the human condition. It is definitely worth a look by contemporary audiences- and is also a project that needs to be repeated {this time with Buddhist nuns}!

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Chicagoans say the darnedest things when asked open-ended philosophical questions by a pair of inquisitive sisters.

 

Christopher Borrelli of the Chicago Tribune did a marvelous piece about The Inquiring Nuns which features more of the history, back story, and subsequent influence the film had on society and culture (although it’s hidden behind a pay wall so you will have to register):

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/chi-borrelli-happy-20130301,0,5564951.column