The oldest student film society in the country is celebrating its 75th year at the University of Chicago.
“There aren’t many places that show an obscure Beethoven biopic, a documentary on Iraq, a silent gangster film, an Alfred Hitchcock thriller and an avant-garde gay porn masterpiece in a single week,” said College fourth-year Kyle Westphal, who serves as Historian and Finance Chair for Doc Films at the University of Chicago. “That’s what Doc is all about.”
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First founded on campus in 1932, Doc Films has always had a strong presence on campus and in Hyde Park — something students hope will be put in the spotlight this year.
“I hope the 75th anniversary will remind everyone on campus and in Hyde Park of the vitality of this organization,” Westphal said. “Hyde Park residents should be proud of the film society they’ve supported for decades — we couldn’t be programming the way we do if it were not for an audience whose trust we’ve earned.”
For Fred Pfeiffer, a College fourth-year and Co-Chair of Doc Films, the anniversary honors the University itself.
“When I think about the 75th anniversary, I am most struck by the role played by the University of Chicago. An organization like Doc Films is the product of the unique social, intellectual and cultural environment at Chicago and could not exist anywhere else in the world,” he said. “As such, our history over the last 75 years is in many ways a tribute to the University — an institution that stands in a class entirely its own.”
Although the date of Doc’s founding has varied over the years, Westphal said that its earliest inception is traced back to 1932, when Chicago’s International House began an “ambitious film-screening program.” Four years later in 1936, two students founded the University Film Society, which screened more than 20 programs on campus during its first year before running out of films to screen.
Then, in 1940, several former members of the University Film Society came together to form the International House Documentary Film Group, which was openly socialist and advertised itself as a “realist study of our time via non-fiction film.” By spring 1941, the group had shortened its name to Documentary Film Group; decades later it acquired the abbreviated Doc Films name that is still used today.
Due to a limited amount of available films, Doc was unable to survive financially on screening documentaries alone during its early years and began incorporating fictional films into its repertoire — a balance that still exists, Westphal said.
Being the only movie theater in Hyde Park, Doc does show mainstream films from time to time, including Casino Royale, Borat and Happy Feet recently, but students involved pride themselves on screening films that usually cannot be found in any other movie theater or on a shelf at Blockbuster.
“Every quarter we screen several prints from the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archives, the Museum of Modern Art and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Westphal said. “These films can’t be seen anywhere else.”
Echoed Pfeiffer, “From its origins screening socialist documentaries to today’s cinematic sexualities series, Doc has provided the University with programming well outside of top 10 lists, theater runs and Netflix queues. Furthermore, we offer students a high-quality cinematic experience; there is simply no comparison between a film projected from 35-mm onto a 20-foot tall screen and one watched on a 20-inch television.”
Another important distinction is that in addition to their full schedule of daily movie screenings during the academic year are the many special events it offers. Those include sneak previews of upcoming films, which are sometimes attended and presented by actors, producers or directors, including Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock.
Earlier this quarter, Darren Aronofsky, who directed the films Pi and Requiem for a Dream, presented his recent film, The Fountain. Upcoming directorial presentations include Thom Anderson, who will present his film Los Angeles Plays Itself on January 30; and Billy Woodberry, who will present his film Bless their Little Hearts on February 27.
“We have been working on projects to strengthen the ties between Doc Films and the communities to which the organizations cater,” said Yana Morgulis, a College fourth-year and fellow Co-Chair of Doc Films. “This year, we have introduced several major changes, which I hope are here to stay, even beyond the anniversary year.”
One of those projects honoring Doc’s 75th anniversary, is the inclusion of many renowned members of Chicago faculty who will present films of their choice at Doc Films this year. Upcoming faculty presentations include Howard Hawks’ Red River, which will be presented on February 20 by Robert Pippin, the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor on the Committee of Social Thought, the Department of Philosophy and the College; and a screening of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath will be presented on March 6 by William Wimsatt, Professor in the Department of Philosophy, the Committees of Evolutionary Biology and Conceptual & Historical Studies in Science, the Morris Fishbein Center for History, Science & Medicine and the College.
“This is our way of actively engaging with the University community,” said Morgulis, who added that a Doc Films newsletter was also created for the first time this year.
At the heart of Doc’s mission is the students’ attempt to reach anyone and everyone — from film buffs to the everyday moviegoer, Westphal said.
“We don’t try to cater to one audience,” he said. “We just try to have an eclectic, quality calendar that will have a few films each quarter that every segment of our audience can be excited about.”
Added Pfeiffer, “Doc not only enables students like me to procrastinate their homework, it also provides a service pretty much absent from other universities around the country: nightly programming catering to cinephiles and mainstream moviegoers alike.”
Additional information about Doc Films is available at http://docfilms.uchicago.edu.