Ready, Set, Action! Roll the 90 Years of Doc Film

Doc Films offers the UChicago and South Side community an escape from classes and commitments into the vibrant and varied worlds they project on screen.


University of Chicago

Ida Noyes Hall, home to Max Palevsky Cinema.

By Evgenia Anastasakos, Grey City Reporter

As one of the oldest film societies in the country, Doc Films, or Doc, has spent the past 91 years sharing movies with the UChicago and South Side community.

My first time hearing about Doc was before I even came to UChicago; I came across it in a list of RSOs, during my hours of research while writing college applications. During O-Week, I was going to attend the Night Owls screening of Jurassic Park, but instead of heading to the usual screening spot of Max Palevsky Cinema in Ida Noyes, I made the mistake of trudging all the way to Max Palevsky Residential Commons; I later learned this was a common misunderstanding for Doc newcomers. By the time I realized my mistake, I was already late because of a house meeting and had spent the entire walk struggling against the wind to keep my umbrella from flipping inside-out. I eventually arrived at Ida Noyes, cold and soaked from the rain, too late for the screening itself (though I did stick around for the talk afterwards).

A few weeks later, I made it back to Doc to see Forbidden Planet, with far fewer trials and tribulations along the way. The movie was entirely new to me, a relic of old science fiction that I would never have seen otherwise. Walking out of Ida Noyes, my friend and I discussed our thoughts and laughed about the weird scenes. Coming out of the pandemic, I had forgotten how nice it felt to go to the movie theater and to share that with the people around me.

Movies seen in theaters provide a collective experience that feels almost sacred. Online streaming cannot replicate that feeling of silent anticipation, sitting in a room full of strangers and gazing up at the screen, waiting for the movie to start. The theater holds a sense of gravity and demands your focus. Doc provides that to the campus community, offering an escape from classes and commitments into the vibrant and varied worlds they project on screen.

Doc is one of the oldest student organizations on campus, officially formed as the International House Documentary Film Group in 1940, though its earliest antecedents date back to 1932. While originally founded to screen documentaries, the breadth of their programming has since expanded to include a wider range of genres. Doc’s calendar is filled to the brim with eclectic choices and features plenty of movies that you likely wouldn’t see nearby, from foreign films to experimental works, all chosen primarily by students and community members. Doc’s storied history is a major draw to students looking to get involved.

“The biggest plus is that you can tout around that you’re in one of the oldest RSOs on campus,” said Doc’s General Chair Cameron Poe, a fourth-year physics major.

Doc’s reputation precedes it; an often-repeated quote from Vanity Fair’s “The Film Snob’s Dictionary” calls Doc “hard-core beyond words and lay comprehension” and “populated by 19-year olds who have already seen every film ever made.”

Over the years, Doc has welcomed famous directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, and Claire Denis, hosted premieres, and set alumni on the path toward careers in film. Doc’s roots run deep: Alumni can be found scattered throughout the film world, projecting in prestigious cinemas, and working with arts organizations and museums. One of Doc’s most famous alumni is Dave Kehr, longtime Chicago film critic and current curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

According to Poe, rumor has it that even celebrated Chicago film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel used to catch screenings at Doc before writing reviews.

Although Doc’s fabled history has made it a fixture of the Chicago film landscape, its impressive pedigree isn’t meant to deter more casual film enjoyers. The group strives to provide an accessible forum for all students to learn more about film.

At seven dollars per ticket and $40 for a quarterly pass, it’s easy to catch a showing to see something new and unexpected anytime during the quarter. Every night, a different movie is screened, with two movies shown on Thursdays. This means that over the course of four years, even frequent Doc attendees won’t likely see the same movie twice.

“Most of the films I went to go see weren’t ones I’d have come across on streaming services anyways— Doc exposed me to super cool stuff I never would’ve watched otherwise,” said Alasdair Dodd, a first-year who began attending weekly Doc screenings during autumn quarter. 

“I’m friends with someone who goes way more than I do, and it became our little bonding ritual,” Dodd explained. The barrier of entry is low, and you don’t need to be a film expert to enjoy the theater experience; Dodd recommends Doc to anyone who wants a fun way to spend time with friends or de-stress. 

Before the completion of a dedicated space for its screenings, Doc would screen films in Cobb Hall. But since the 1980s, Doc has operated out of Ida Noyes’s Max Palevsky Cinema, named for venture capitalist, UChicago alum, philanthropist, and movie producer Max Palevsky. In this theater, they host screenings almost every night of the quarter. As a recognized student organization with an official campus presence, the group holds a vital role in the arts community on campus.

Inside the theater, everything is run by volunteers, from the projection booth to the ticket table. In its daily operations, Doc relies on a team of over one hundred in order to carry out screenings, publicize events, and select programming. Since the group is run by full-time students, tasks are spread out and volunteers can work as much or as little as they want. Volunteers can choose from a variety of roles, like ticket sales, advertising, design, and screening operations. 

Poe himself began volunteering during his first year but became less involved after the initial COVID-19 shutdown. In spring 2021, after emails from Doc about the need for volunteers for the website, Poe and fourth-year Lindsey Qian, the current volunteer chair decided to help. After the resignation of the previous general chair, Poe stepped up and took on the position, which includes leading the board, communicating with the university, and taking on whichever tasks fall by the wayside. 

“The vast majority of people involved really do it because there’s an intense community,” Addison Wood, one of this year’s programming chairs, said. Most members of Doc are not cinema and media studies (CMST) majors; instead, the group is for everyone who wants to get involved with film. 

Although Doc was not fully operational due to the pandemic during his first year, Wood, a third-year triple majoring in CMST, English language and literature, and Latin American and Caribbean studies (and, at the time of the interview, the only CMST major on the board), began volunteering as a ticket seller as a second-year, before becoming publicity chair and later programming chair. He said that he had been interested in Doc since applying to UChicago because of its unique history. 

One of the ways volunteers can get involved is in the projection booth. Doc’s projectionists learn to work with 2000-pound projectors and reels of film, sharing an old medium with new audiences. 

“[B]ecause [the film reel] blurs things a little bit, that actual image on the screen, although not as realistic as a hyper-realistic image, adds to the effect of the director’s intent in that scene. There’s a way that by not showing everything as it actually is, as the human eye sees it, you add a layer of actual realism because that’s how that scene is supposed to be portrayed,” Poe said. 

The physical aspect of film is another reason why Doc cares so much about preserving this element of the medium: “When it’s a reel of film and it’s like a hundred pounds sitting in our projection booth, that is tangible. It doesn’t change. It’s there and it’ll always be like that, besides degrading to the elements. I think we find it really important to keep that,” said Poe.

Doc volunteers can also make their voices heard in the programming process. The films are organized by weekly series every quarter, with different films in a certain theme assigned to each day of the week. For instance, this autumn, the earlier Thursday showings were dedicated to nine different reimaginations of Shakespeare stories, spanning genres and time periods. As programming chair, Wood selects the series of films for the quarter. First, students, faculty, and community members propose themes, which are then voted on by Doc volunteers. Wood uses the results of the vote in order to create a final, balanced schedule. Although the democratic process is emphasized, Wood doesn’t just choose the top nine. 

“A lot of the time, with the top nine, you’ll see areas where they kind of run into each other. They might not have the same films in them, but say we’re doing a retrospective on Italian New Realist cinema and then someone else proposes a Fellini retrospective. Those don’t necessarily overlap a lot, but the same people who go to one are possibly the same people who go to another,” Wood said. 

The different series and days of the week are purposefully designed to appeal not to one single Doc audience, but to different viewers with different cinematic tastes. For instance, retrospectives on filmmakers often fall on Wednesdays, while the late-night Thursday showings tend to include more cult or “midnight movies.” Sometimes, for Wood, the programming decisions are made with a heavy heart: “There is always a sad thing that happens when I have that spreadsheet and I’m making a final decision: There’s a really great series that’s almost going to get in but you have to just go with the series you don’t feel as fondly about, because it’s for Doc’s good,” he said.

This past autumn quarter, Doc celebrated its 90th anniversary with a weekend-long schedule of movies and talks meant to reflect on the organization’s history and to celebrate this new milestone. In order to plan the anniversary, Doc programmers used lists of past showings and events, dating back to as early as the 1940s, as inspiration for the anniversary schedule. Inspired by a similar event which occurred in the 1990s, an event on October 22 allowed visitors to attend a screening of the 1968 documentary The Queen for free, as long as they showed up dressed in drag. On Saturday night, Doc screened the Japanese art film Funeral Parade of Roses following a talk from University president Paul Alivisatos who, during his own time at UChicago, served as the president of Doc. Over the weekend, Doc also brought back previous speaker Michelle Citron, an experimental documentarian, who gave a talk after the screening of some of her films. Some films shown, like Hitchcock’s Marnie, were chosen as references to previous visiting directors, while some others were chosen because of their popularity or cult status. To complete the celebrations, Doc screened Au Hasard Balthazar, a film which had originally celebrated its Chicago premiere at Doc.

Although some things, like a strong commitment to film history and culture, have remained constant, much about Doc has grown and shifted over the years.

“I had the really lucky experience back during alumni weekend in spring of 2022 to talk to two Doc presidents from 50 years ago, and they just had a completely different idea of what Doc was,” Poe said. “They were in Cobb Hall, they had two 16mm projectors.  It was basically like five people, they stored all of their money in a bank and had to go do deposits themselves. It was not University-affiliated, they chose all the movies, and there was no democratic programming model. It was much more of an underground thing back then. Now we’re getting written up in all of these film publications in Chicago and our alumni are now working at the Museum of Modern Art and projecting at Anthology Film Archive in New York City. It snowballed into a much larger, much more official thing.”

Doc’s focus has also turned toward film archiving and film history. “It is really like museum artifacts that we’re working with. We’re starting to turn more from a student underground film society towards a real repertory cinema that does work in maintaining archival standards, showing movies that wouldn’t ever be seen in the format, and especially doing it for a student audience which I think is very cool,” Poe said.

Recently, Doc has also attempted to bring more diversity to the stories shown on screen. When creating the schedule, Wood tries to spotlight diverse filmmakers and address areas where Doc has fallen short in the past.

“To be totally frank, I had been surprised looking back at old series how not diverse Doc could really be, even five or 10 years ago,” he said. Since becoming programming chair, he has made a point of encouraging programmers to propose series made by diverse filmmakers, rather than just films by white men (except for retrospectives of white male filmmakers). “I feel like it allows us to reflect on filmmaking culture more broadly,” he explained.

Wood has also encouraged undergraduate involvement, giving special consideration to the proposals of volunteers. “As much as Doc is a community center, it is also extremely important that we’re cultivating a love of film culture among undergraduate students,” Wood explained.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a heavy blow for Doc, forcing them to cease their usual operations. Over the pandemic, they organized various online screenings but couldn’t replicate the same theater experience from afar without any in-person activities. 

“The effect of that was that a lot of people lost institutional memory and kind of forgot how things worked when we came back in, so it was definitely a learning curve when we started back up in 2021,” Poe said. 

Returning from the pandemic, Doc has experienced a surge of interest. Audiences are back in the theater, and volunteers, both old and new, have returned. 

“This quarter has been a total shift from my second year, which was the first year of Doc since the pandemic. I would say those quarters, we were maybe getting 10 series. Almost every series would get in. Now, it’s 23 that will be included in this round,” Wood said about the increase in volunteer programming proposals during this autumn quarter.

However, slashed funding has made it impossible for them to return to their full schedules, which is a source of frustration, especially considering the milestone anniversary that Doc is celebrating. 

“If our budget stays where it’s at right now, Doc will never be able to show films the way it used to. It kind of killed our schedule. That’s a major concern for us, being able to finish this year with enough series and then, going forward, we’re really going to be kneecapped and limited by the number of series because of our budget cuts,” Wood said. 

Doc’s funding is allocated by student government, which awards parts of a single pool of funds to various art RSOs each year. Although Doc has had a steady amount of funding for years, this quarter, their allocation was drastically slashed. 

Poe attributes this to the new funding system. “The new thing that they enacted is that everyone that’s in a group is already promised their earlier amount of funding from the last year, so it means that the pie is already divided. You’re limited in the amount of money that you can ask over since the pie is already cut up and it’s not like the amount is growing,” he said. 

The year, before the new funding system was enacted, Doc had been operating at a limited capacity due to COVID-19, so a limited budget was still adequate. Another explanation for the budget cuts that Poe came upon was that, unlike the other RSOs competing for the funds, Doc has shown a decrease in student involvement. Because of this, Doc has had to reduce their spring schedule and is concerned about not being able to screen a summer calendar if funds run out.

“The sad thing about that is we are limited by the amount of money we have and not the amount of volunteers we have, which is what has historically been the limiting factor,” Poe said.

Doc’s aim has never been to profit, which is clear from their seven-dollar tickets and lack of concessions; there is no desire to emulate a commercial theater. Instead, members are focused on showing movies with cultural or historical importance, while keeping the theater accessible to students and sharing the movie-theater experience.

Doc’s aging equipment also makes funding a more urgent issue. Much of the equipment in Max Palevsky Cinema has been there since 1986, when it was built, and there hasn’t been a major update in years. The concern of obsolete or broken technology means that Doc has to balance the cost of running a schedule of films with the cost of replacing the outdated equipment.

Unfortunately, Doc’s long-established presence on campus hasn’t made its financial issues easier.

“I really thought that the oldest film society in the country saying that we can’t operate with this budget would be enough, but I think we need to show that we really are serious about this stuff,” Poe said. 

That’s one thing that’s undeniable: Doc members are serious about film and about sharing it with the community. Despite the looming issue of money, Doc has had a full autumn quarter and is continuing to plan many more events for the winter. This autumn, they brought in two directors and were able to run all scheduled screenings without canceling a single one. 

“It is a total labor of love. I come from a film family so it’s a really neat experience. It’s easily the most satisfying thing that I’ve done. It’s more challenging than any of my majors. It’s so much harder than any of my classes, but it’s so rewarding,” Wood said. “It is the most tangible feeling of being in film history that I’ve ever experienced in my life.” 

At Doc, it’s easy to get swept up in the passion. Sitting in those red-upholstered chairs, listening to the sounds of your fellow audience members, eyes drawn to the big screen, you can feel the magic. It’s a communal experience, as most volunteers and moviegoers can attest to, and if you linger for a moment afterwards, you can see the way that it stays with people, even after the movie ends.