Decades-Old Student Film Society Continues Making History

UChicago’s very own Doc Films is the nation’s oldest and longest-running college film society.
The Doc Films Executive Board poses in front of their office at Ida Noyes Hall.
Doc Films is... actually one of the last remaining college film societies, which I think makes it particularly special.
Nora Gonzalez
Fourth year

Leading the now-decades-old campus film society, Doc Films’ Executive Board presides over an organization with an illustrious history. It’s understandable then that when I sat down with general chair and rising fourth-year Nora Gonzalez as well as former general chair and recent graduate Hasti Soltani, they couldn’t help but relay as many bizarre facts about their film society as they could remember.

As Gonzalez and Soltani explained, the first film Doc Films aired was acclaimed director Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. Certainly no other film society could boast that it has hosted Alfred Hitchcock, Jason Bateman and Darren Aronofsky for different on-campus events across the decades. After airing the indie drama White Girl two years ago, Doc Films then treated audiences to a Q&A session with the movie’s lead Morgan Saylor, who happened to also be a UChicago undergrad and a Doc Films volunteer at the time. One especially outlandish weekly movie series, themed around the lighthearted and self-referential title “Sexy Doc,” featured Shrek as one of its weekly films.

These far-reaching anecdotes reflect Doc Film’s famous eccentricity as much as its storied past.

UChicago’s first film society was started in 1932 by a group of cinephiles living in International House, who started showing a movie a week to their housemates. After moving their movie screenings out of the dorms and into a more formal theater in Cobb years later, the group rebranded itself as one principally concerned with showing documentaries, hence the name for their then-small film society: Doc Films.

Design Chair Serin Lee has designed a number of eye-catching digital art advertising upcoming Doc Films screenings.

“Doc Films is the oldest, continuously running student film society in the country. We’re actually one of the last remaining college film societies, which I think makes it particularly special,” Gonzalez said.

“Special” is a fitting word for Doc Films, which beyond its proudly peculiar history, shows a unique movie every night during the school year and three nights a week during the summer. This results in an especially eclectic mix of film screenings. Few other cinemas will play Orson Welles’ low-grossing but acclaimed Chimes at Midnight one night and 2018’s Black Panther the next. Doc did so in early June.

While now based out of Ida Noyes Hall and screening more than just documentaries, the Doc Films of today still has much in common with that initial group of enthusiastic housemates—primarily a commitment to sharing rare movies with a wider audience.

Those curious about Doc Films can start out in more casual roles like being a ticket seller, a member of the archiving and design committee or simply a “poster-naut,” a role that involves advertising notable Doc Films screenings by putting up posters across both campus and the surrounding city. Those with more experience handle money during each film shift as show captains or work in the booth as projectionists (the “coolest job” according to Soltani).

“We are a full cinema that is run exclusively by volunteers, both students and non-students… Every quarter, we have over a hundred volunteers [who work] anywhere from 30 minutes a week to 3 hours,” Soltani said.

Notably, all Doc Films volunteers get a free movie pass for the quarter, and those who regularly attend the weekly programming meetings are able to vote on which movie series Doc Films will schedule for the subsequent quarter.

While the cinematic interests of Doc Films’ leadership might skew more obscure than those of more casual moviegoers, Gonzalez is committed to ensuring that Doc Films remains appealing to everyone.

“We have our new releases on Saturday nights, which are movies that came out in the previous year… Those movies attract not just cinephiles. We also partner with a lot of RSOs, which I think brings in a different group of people,” Gonzalez said.

Handled carefully by projectionists, Doc Films does its screenings with 35 mm film.

Last year, the group partnered with Women in Graduate Science and the Association of Women in Mathematics for a showing of Hidden Figures, a biographical film about three black female scientists working at NASA in the 60s. Fittingly, the film was followed up by a panel discussion of female scholars at the University’s physics department.

For the next year, Gonzalez and her fellow co-chair Martin Awano are looking into new ways to make sure Doc Films remains accessible to all, with a pre-paid ticket program and an internship program with high schools across the Southside as possible long-term goals.

Whatever its future holds, Doc Films will surely remain a society concerned with the past. Volunteers will continue reviving classics from cinematic history too special to forget, exploring that same passion for filmmaking that enlivened those I-House residents back in 1932.