Celebrated Chicago-based cinematographer, Peter Gilbert actually went to college to be a musician. Two years later he was told, “I think you should take the other fork in the road.”
“After going to NYU film school, I started in California as a director of photography, working with cameraman Haskell Wexler. After about two or three months, Haskell said to me “you don't want to be out here, you should buy a camera, go back to where you are from and make films. Come back out here if you want, but just go and make films.”
So I went back to Chicago and to the one place that really had a reputation for documentary — Kartemquin Films, a not-for-profit, community based filmmaking organization. It was there, while I was doing sweat equity, anything to get my nose in the door, that I was introduced to Barbara Kopple. I worked with her for five years on a film called American Dream (1990) about Reagan's America, based in Austin, Minnesota — the home of Spam, the meat packing industry.
Barbara is about storytelling through characters. The politics is really behind the scenes. It's through someone's story that you learn what's going on and make up your mind. That kind of storytelling I learned from Barbara and gravitated towards.”
It's a style that Gilbert carried over into the 1994 documentary, Hoop Dreams made with first time feature director, Steve James and Frederick Marx. Seven and a half years in the making, filmed over five years, Hoop Dreams follows two inner city junior high-school students, William Gates and Arthur Agee who are both are recruited by a suburban school to play basketball.
Says Gilbert, “Neither Steve or I realised what a business it was or the hopes and dreams that were involved in it. It really became a film about families and not so much about sport. In one of the first scenes of the film, a white coach says to Arthur and his family, who were very poor, “If you do what I tell you to do, I promise you that you'll go to college.” It was like, BAM! Here was the film. We need to follow that – to see, on a very simplistic level, if what this man promises to this family will actually come true. That's what started us on this seven and a half year journey – a great journey to be on. We looked at it just like a narrative film – except we didn't know how it would end.”
American Dream won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1991. Hoop Dreams topped TV critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's best of 1994 list and made more national top ten critics lists than any other film that year. It was nominated in the Best Editing category in the 1995 Academy Awards and is available as part of The Criterion Collection.