From socialists to cineasts, Doc celebrates 75 years

By John Frame

In 1932, International House began screening a number of foreign films that were not given wide Chicago (or sometimes, U.S.) distribution. By 1940, all of the energy combined to form the Documentary Film Group, a socialist group dedicated to screening exclusively non-fiction films that furthered its cause. “This early group viewed film as a catalyst for discussion more than an art form. That changed quickly as they added ‘fiction films’ and repertory titles after it became clear that grim documentaries wouldn’t pay the bills,” says English major Kyle Westphal, the finance co-chair and unofficial historian of Doc Films. Academic film study at the U of C, the rise of home video, and a decline in the number of film societies, Westphal reminds me, led to the founding of the Doc Films that exists today—an organization full of diverse participants and an even more eclectic group of films each quarter. “For me, Doc is great because it can show disparate masterpieces like Sjöström’s The Wind, Cronenberg’s Shivers, and Godard’s Prenom Carmen on the same calendar,” says Westphal, who is programming this quarter’s Sunday series, “Maurice Tourneur: Hollywood Pictorialist.” It was an idea that blossomed “after catching an excellent print of Tourneur’s Trilby for a melodrama seminar organized by the great Tom Gunning.”

Doc Films has been one of the most popular organizations on campus, bringing in thousands of students every quarter to special screenings of recent widely released films like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, while also devoting days to projecting gems from 1930’s French film to classic Alfred Hitchcock (beginning this quarter).

But how does all of this come about?

Weekly themes are determined more or less by a democratic vote. Westphal explains: “Weekly programming meetings are held throughout each quarter to determine the next quarter’s calendar. Intrepid volunteer programmers spend weeks putting together series, preparing a budget estimate, presenting them to their compatriots, soliciting suggestions, fine-tuning the hell out of them, and then putting them up for a vote.” Now in his 18th quarter as a volunteer and 14th as a projectionist, fourth-year Kian Bergstrom will oversee “Cinematic Sexualities in the 21st Century” on Thursdays this quarter. He says that he chose his theme because of an interest in the change in the ways that sex is presented in film. “Sex and the way it’s shown is not just for show, not just spectacle, but intimately and viscerally important to the artistic working of the films. It’s this that I set out to survey in my series, including both landmarks in the movement, like Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World, and brand new films that people in this country won’t really have had a chance to see yet. I’m particularly excited about the showing of All About Anna on [January] 18.” In that case, Bergstrom had to negotiate with the North American publicist and a Danish production studio.

And where do the films come from?

Doc has ties with a handful of large distributors that negotiate contracts with major studios to distribute films to smaller venues like Doc Films. There are also a wide variety of smaller distributors that have access to the more obscure films that we see at Doc. It can cost anywhere from $700–$1000 for a new release film like Little Miss Sunshine, which screened last weekend.

Not even a “financial quagmire” (as Doc Films Co-Chair Yana Morgulis calls it) last year can stop Doc from doing what it does best. Since that financial difficulty occurred, there has been substantial reevaluation and the organization’s business model has been improved considerably. “We conducted surveys, made Doc Films T-shirts available so that Doc Films as an image and organization can have a place beyond the cinema space, and came out with a newsletter this quarter (thanks to the efforts of second-year Luke Joyner, our calendar chair) to provide a background and familiarize our patrons with the story behind each weekday series as well as showcase several director and faculty appearances,” Morgulis said.

To coincide with this year’s 75th anniversary celebration of the little group of socialists who evolved into a multi-dimensional, multi-directional group of students with a passion for film, Doc will invite distinguished professors Wendy Doniger, Robert Pippin, and William Wimsatt to host free screenings of a film of their choice, as well as surprise guest film directors to appear in the spring and next fall.

Through all these efforts, Doc has emerged as one of the leading student film organizations in the country. The organization’s popularity can be seen far beyond the reach of its core organizers. Fourth-year International Studies major Nicholas Carby-Denning says that he finds Doc useful for viewing great movies in their original medium: “There is something to be said about seeing a film like Apocalypse Now in the theatre as opposed to viewing it on DVD. Nothing compares to the silver screen.” Fourth-year Ana Maria Sinitean says, “although I don’t like waiting outside in the cold for several hours, I still enjoy the opportunity for advanced screenings of new films that Doc offers. I probably go to those more than I participate in the film series.” So the diverse opinions echo the sentiments of those who are more involved in Doc’s day to day orchestrations.

“The purpose of Doc is two-fold,” Westphal concludes, “provide popular entertainment to the campus and community at large and present programming that often cannot be seen outside of cinémathèques and film archives. We’ll change however we need to change so that we can continue to fulfill that mission. We want our programming to rival that of places like UCLA, Film Forum, and the Harvard Film Archive in depth, richness, and rarity.” I don’t think anyone can argue with that.

Doc Films holds weekly meetings every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in Ida Noyes, Room 216. All are welcome to attend regardless of expertise or involvement.