film reels laid out on a light table
Courtesy Doc Films

The nation’s oldest and longest-running college film society is located right under our noses on Chicago’s south side at the University of Chicago. In 1932, a group of film buffs living in International House—a nine-story Gothic building—began screening films in the dorm. 

In 1940, they would move into Cobb Hall, which had a more traditional theater, where they gained their name “Doc” based on the films they were showing—”documentaries.” As time moved on, the group expanded their screenings to fiction and experimental films, something still popular within the club today. Now, during every night of the academic year, Doc Films screens movies at the Max Palevsky Cinema in Ida Noyes Hall on 59th Street. In October, Doc celebrated 90 years as a film society. 

Throughout Doc’s history, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, John Ford, and many others visited to present films and lead discussions with the audience. Doc is responsible for the Chicago premieres of The Rules of the Game (1939) and Brokeback Mountain (2005).

Cameron Poe, 21, is a fourth-year senior majoring in physics at the University of Chicago. He’s also the Doc Films general chair and has been a part of the film society for over a year. 

In the winter of 2020, he worked one shift as a ticket seller, but then COVID-19 arrived and all in-person activities were suspended. After a year of remote classes, Poe decided that Doc would be his reason to leave his apartment, and he joined as a member of the board. 

“Doc happened to fit nicely into my newfound love for my Criterion Channel subscription,” he says.

Many former Doc volunteers have continued to be involved in film in some capacity. For example, Gordon Quinn and Gerald Temaner, cofounders of Kartemquin Films, and Ernest Callenbach, founding editor of Film Quarterly, are among the impressive list of Doc alumni. 

A 2004 Vanity Fair article said Doc was a society “populated by 19-year-olds who have already seen every film ever made,” but this isn’t to say Doc is snobby or exclusive. In fact, locals are welcome to volunteer and participate in programming, projecting, ticket sales, fireguard, show captain, etc. The film society is entirely run by volunteers.

Each quarter, Doc gets new proposals from volunteers and the wider Chicago community, suggesting what the calendar should look like. 

Poe explains, “Each person or group of people proposes a series of nine films that will play on a specific day and time each week for our nine-week academic quarters. Series can cover a common narrative theme, highlight the works of one director or actor, or link something else entirely. One series I’m excited about next quarter is called ‘Blow Up My Video,’ which consists of films [that were] shot on digital cameras but were originally distributed and shown on celluloid.” 

But this wasn’t always how Doc programmed. Poe notes, “Back in the 70s, films were only programmed by two or three members that sat on the board.” 

Themes have ranged from “Silent Films” to “Sexy Doc,” the latter featuring a screening of Shrek (2001). The tongue-in-cheek humor behind the Doc Programming Committee is exemplified through these weekly themes—and is one of the reasons the society is adored by locals. It alleviates some of the stuffiness behind a UChicago club. In the same theater where you can watch Ancestors in the Americas, Part 1 (2001) and The Chinese Exclusion Act (2017), you can watch new releases like Top Gun: Maverick

Films screened at Doc come from Janus, Universal, Criterion, and other distributors, and they also project films from the Academy Film Archive or the Library of Congress. Poe says, “Doc also owns its own collection of 35mm and 16mm prints, and we were lucky to have a print for Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight [1965] that we got to show this quarter.” 

Doc’s budget for screening films comes from the university’s budget, ticket sales, and the occasional partnership or sponsorship. 

Poe says, “One of the things I’m most proud of at Doc is we’ve been able to grow to include more of our patrons in our programming model while also expanding the type of films we actually show. We almost never show the same film twice in four years, in an effort to diversify the typical undergraduate’s film taste, so this means we show about 1,000 different movies over four years. I don’t know any other cinema that does programming like ours.” 

Attending a Doc film is like attending any other theater, except before the screening begins, a volunteer stands at the front and calls out rules during the screening. No eating, drinking, chatting, etc. Every volunteer has their own cadence—some shout loudly with confidence while others get to the point while appearing shyly in front of a large crowd. 

Doc Films at the University of Chicago
Max Palevsky Cinema in Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th St.

Another unique addition to a Doc film is the occasional projection mishap. The cinema where Doc shows its films includes two Simplex 35mm projectors, an Eastman 25 16mm projector, and a NEC NC1200C digital projector. When screening celluloid, things can easily go wrong, and sometimes, in true Doc fashion, a film will be paused for a moment or two. The lights will turn on, the crowd will chat, and then before you know it, the projection picks up again. (Usually, a Doc crowd will clap and cheer, never missing a beat.)

Poe explains that “celluloid, due to its scarcity and fragility, necessitates someone inspecting each inch of footage, doing each changeover, and checking all of our audio levels.” 

This means that a real person has to be in the projection booth the entire time. “Most commercial cinemas now just have a computer do all the work, from lowering the lights, setting the masking, and starting the show. The effect I think is a more personal experience. For example, we adjust the volume in the cinema to how many people are there or how balanced the audio we receive is. This is the way that movies have historically been shown, so not only are we showing films on 16mm or 35mm, which in this day and age are effectively museum artifacts, but we are transforming the cinema itself into a sort of museum that preserves and chronicles the act of moviegoing. That effect is really special to us, and we think it’s important to bring to a primarily student audience.”

In addition to their care for the films, Doc is one of the only theaters on the south side showing films of this reverence. Tickets are also some of the cheapest in the city—$7 for a single pass. Quarterly passes are $40 for more than 40 films. 

The flicker of the celluloid and the preservation of watching films is something so rich and unique at Doc. It isn’t your everyday club—it’s the inclusion of human touch and the dedication of a group of students who value cinema enough to sustain a long-lasting community of movie lovers.