Doc Films: Past, present and future

By Amanda Murphy

Tucked away in the depths of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago’s campus is a once influential and still highly regarded film society. In the past, one of many and now a rare commodity, Doc Films continues its mission, providing viewers with a $5, one-of-a-kind film experience.

The story began in 1940, when students at U of C formed the International Documentary Film Group. From the start, the group had an emphasis on documentary films but never exclusively focused on them. Doc Films emerged at a time when film societies were beginning to percolate but had not yet become widespread, said Kyle Westphal, a former member. Feeding members films that were acknowledged classics, the focus of Doc Films’ program has remained virtually the same through the decades.

This is particularly true of its showcasing of foreign films, like this winter’s Mikio Naruse’s “A Wanderer’s Notebook,” which hasn’t been shown in the U.S. for more than seven years. When Doc Films first began doing this in the early 1940s, foreign films were shown a majority of the time to the college market or in language classes. Then in the 1950s, the film society put an emphasis on showing more controversial films like Luis Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou” and Kenneth Anger’s “Fireworks.”

“Because they were so involved in avant-garde and independent film exhibition, they got the sense that there really wasn’t an outlet for these filmmakers other than other ramshackle film societies,” Westphal said. “So they made an effort to start a festival, the Midwest Film Festival, where they would have a gallery for the independent filmmaker.”

Although the festival only lasted for three years—1962–1964—it attracted many eyes to the now growing film society. Gifted filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Anger, Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock visited the group. As the idea of a film society began to die off toward the late 1970s and early 1980s with the rise of home video and arthouse theaters, Doc Films survived and continued to thrive. Roger Ebert remains a major supporter, and the group still attracts a number of high-profile guests to its theater.

“[The film society] was where you had a chance to see movies in repertory and at the time, a lot of things circulated on 16mm, and it was very cheap to get these films,” said Edo Choi, a former Doc Films member. “So, it was the golden age of the film society, and Doc is sort of the last descendant of that family of film societies.”

But as the film industry has changed, so has Doc Films, which now faces its share of struggles. Despite the increased difficulty of acquiring movies in 16mm and 35mm formats, Doc Films continues to provide its patrons with classic films worth seeing on the big screen.

However, the group has had to compromise in recent years by showing newer films in digital format. Choi said that while digital is not necessarily a bad medium for viewing a movie, there are some things that can change in the conversion process. Digital lighting is different, he said, and the movements captured by an ocean for example, do not transfer well when compared to the original film.

But as common as digital is becoming, the film society makes it a point to stay true to the roots of film by showing them in the way they were meant to be seen.

“Digital cinema package isn’t bad, but it isn’t film and most movies were made on film,” Choi said. “If I had a very high resolution reproduction of the Mona Lisa in an art history book, it still wouldn’t be the Mona Lisa.”

Current Doc Films Programming Chair Max Frank said he is unsure of the future of the film industry and its rapid departure away from film stock, but they will continue to screen movies on film for as long as possible. This led them to reduce the number of screenings of new films on weekends while they continue to feature special series, like this winter season’s Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson split.

Frank said showing movies like Anderson’s “Rushmore” on the big screen gives young viewers a sense of nostalgia. He said it is impossible to deny that the films are becoming more expensive and more difficult to get a hold of, but this small film society isn’t the only one feeling the heat.

“There are people at the Music Box [3733 N. Southport Ave.] and Gene Siskel Film Center [164 N. State St.] who have been doing it for way longer, and everyone seems to be on the same page that this is getting tougher,” Frank said. “We’re going to have to make concessions at some point.”

Doc Films is also unique in that it shows a different film every night, something the university’s funding has helped achieve. For each academic quarter the society will show approximately 80–100 films, including extra events that are added on.

The film society, which is open to anyone who would like to volunteer time, puts a great deal of work into designing each calendar. Frank said this becomes especially difficult because once a film is shown by Doc Films, it can’t be shown again for another four years. But with a creative body of volunteers and a plethora of films to choose from, the group puts together a mix of many film genres.

For students like Choi and Evan Harold, Doc Films was one of the main factors in choosing U of C. Harold said he had read about Doc Films in one of the college’s information packets, and although he mistakenly thought it was a filmmaking club, he is very proud to be part of it.

“It was a chance to force yourself to watch movies that you wouldn’t otherwise watch on your own time,” Harold said.

The group’s undeniably impressive reputation pulls in local volunteers and movie watchers from afar. Frank said there’s an Indiana family who makes the drive to Hyde Park almost every night. And though Hyde Park is, as Frank described it, in a strange part of the city, volunteers and patrons alike have stayed loyal to the legendary film society.

Despite multiple hurdles, what keeps Doc Films growing comes down to one aspect: a mutual and almost compulsive love of film.

“I think we have a nice balance between young cinephiles and older obsessive people,” Frank said. “It all kind of comes together into this weird but strangely workable theater.”

For more information on Doc Films and to view the upcoming calendar schedule, visit