Doc Films general co-chair Nora Gonzalez looks out from the projection booth Credit: Max Thomsen

It’s one of the funniest scenes in Singin’ in the Rain. Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen are a pair of 1920s movie stars at an advance screening of their first sound picture—their first “talkie”—when there’s a problem: the sound is messed up. Onscreen, Kelly’s clothes squeak like rubber boots, Hagen’s pearls clink, and her shrill voice comes in, then fades out, then comes in again. In their seats, Kelly and Hagen shift anxiously as the audience laughs and cheers and heckles like it’s watching a slapstick comedy instead of a drab costume drama. The sound falls out of sync, it slows down and distorts, and then it cuts out completely. But this time, it’s for real.

The audience—the actual audience here in the Max Palevsky Cinema at the University of Chicago—laughs and cheers too. The musical is officially put on hold, but the mood remains festive, even though it’s a Thursday night in January. Chatter echoes as people look around at each other, and then up to the back of the theater, trying to see into the windows of the projection booth.

That’s where Martin Awano, the evening’s projectionist, is sitting.

“The theater that had [the film] before us had wound two of the reels top to top, so for two reels the soundcheck was on the wrong side,” Awano explains a few months later. “I should have caught that but I didn’t. But it’s moments like that where you have a relationship with the object, where you’re thinking, ‘I didn’t take care of this correctly,’ and you feel a little guilty.”

The sound would cut out or stutter a few more times that night before the issue was resolved. But, in hindsight at least, Awano wasn’t too concerned.

“There’s a certain elegance to the mistakes that happen,” he says.

Gonzalez at work
Gonzalez at workCredit: Max Thomsen

Awano, along with fellow U of C senior Nora Gonzalez, is one of the outgoing general chairs of Doc Films, the university’s student-run film society. It’s the oldest of its kind in the country, tracing its roots back to 1932, when it originally showed only documentaries (hence its name). Open to the public, the club shows movies—sometimes as many as three a day—every day of the academic school year and, whenever possible, on film. Doc attracts cinephiles and casual moviegoers from all over Chicago and has consistently eclectic offerings: recent series have included “Dinner Parties of the Idle Rich” featuring films like L’Avventura and Daisies, and “Phantom Rides: Trains and Cinema,” which showed Doctor Zhivago and Murder on the Orient Express.

One of Doc Films’ defining features is its approximately 125-person volunteer staff, made up mostly of students but also a fair number of community members, who sell tickets, program the calendar, and project the films themselves.

Many volunteers fill numerous roles; like Awano, Gonzalez also works as a projectionist. During a joint interview in March, Gonzalez says this enthusiastic, anyone-can-get- involved approach sets Doc apart from other Chicago movie venues.

“There are certain limits that come across from being all-volunteer,” she says. “But you get people who are just passionate, and just really want to do this, and just really want to see celluloid film, right here on campus.”

Gonzalez inspects film for scratches.
Gonzalez inspects film for scratches.Credit: Max Thomsen

On its best nights, when the theater is full but not packed, when the projector is running smoothly, and the sophomore in front of you isn’t constantly checking his phone, that passion can transform the moviegoing experience from a night’s entertainment into a ritual of discovery and community-building. The magic is perhaps most present during the first week of every quarter when longtime Doc attendees and new converts alike pore over the always artfully designed Doc calendar, cooing in delight or manic excitement when they see an old favorite or a classic they’ve been trying to catch forever. That unadulterated love of movies translates into an overflow of creative enthusiasm that’s reflected in Doc’s unique programming structure: the club encourages anyone to attend regular programming meetings and propose a film series they’d like to see. Gonzalez says while attendance varies widely, the core programming committee is made up of about 30 people—half students, half not. At the end of every quarter, the proposed ideas are voted on, and the most popular make it onto an upcoming calendar.

But while film selection is in theory open to all people and points of view, that hasn’t always meant the movies chosen reflect who’s coming to see them.

Ursula Wagner, 38, is a Doc projectionist and programmer who’s been coming to screenings for the last decade. Wagner says she was drawn to Doc for the same reasons as everyone else: she loved movies and Doc was one of the only theaters near her home in Woodlawn. But after a while, Wagner says she started to “get frustrated with some of the lack of diversity in programming. I would look at these films and be like, these are really great films, but they look like they were all chosen by maybe, high school boys who had taken a film class.”

Predictably, Wagner says, that meant an abundance of films made by men.

“I just thought it would be great if there were some different kinds of films shown. And one of my friends said, ‘You know, you can go to the programming meetings, that’s something that supposedly anybody can do.’ So, I started going to those meetings wanting to program different kinds of programming.”

But it wasn’t exactly an easy process. After proposing a series featuring contemporary female American directors in 2013, Wagner says she got resistance from some male board members, who said things along the lines of “we should show movies because they’re good, not because they happen to be directed by a woman.” The response became a recurring theme for several ideas Wagner proposed, which resulted in some tough, emotionally-charged conversations about representation and diversity across the program. Wagner says for a little while, she had to take a step back from programming.

After several years of advocating for more inclusivity, Wagner says there are still some people who “push back against the notion of changing their programming choices to bring different kinds of movies into Doc.” Overall, though, things have improved. She put together a Tilda Swinton showcase in 2016, and last quarter programmed a new lesbian cinema series. She says that, at its best, programming can be a satisfying and sometimes thrilling outlet, especially as Doc’s calendar becomes more diverse.

“People are a little bit more aware, [that] we should show different kinds of voices, and different kinds of movies,” she says, “and not just have a Scorsese retrospective alternating with a Bertolucci retrospective every other year. We can be a little bit more creative than that.”

For Wagner, that creativity has manifested in subtle and unsubtle ways. In the winter of 2018, she programmed a series called, “A Dish Best Served Hot: Feminist Revenge Fantasies.”

Soulet Ali turns down the theater lights.
Soulet Ali turns down the theater lights.Credit: Max Thomsen

For a student-run organization, Doc is a complex logistical operation. Board members oversee not just programming and publicity, but also the acquisition of screening rights and the actual movies, many of which are heavy and delicate 35-millimeter film prints.

Doc regularly imports celluloid films from distributors all over the world, and between screening rights and shipping, the costs add up. Gonzalez says the organizers try to keep each series—which typically include around nine or ten films—close to $4,000 total.

“If it’s below that we’re in good shape, if it’s above that we can’t have too many,” she says.

Doc has a total budget of $125,000 for the 2018-2019 school year. Part of that is fronted by the university; the rest comes from ticket sales. Individual series are also occasionally sponsored through partnerships with academic departments or local cultural organizations. Last fall, Doc raised its longtime admission prices from $5 to $7 a screening, and from $30 to $40 for a quarterly pass. Gonzalez says the fee hike was necessary to ensure esoteric and diverse programming can still find its way to Doc, and the prices remain cheaper than most of the city’s art house or indie theaters.

“We don’t make a lot of money,” she says. “[But] we don’t have to worry about making a profit like other theaters in Chicago do, so I think it gives us a little more flexibility.”

“I don’t think we exist to prove that this is the more economical thing to do,” Awano adds. “it’s just something that is going to be lost to history unless we do it. . . . Doc Films is this institution where all the effort really goes to not try to advance into the new era of showing movies . . . just to preserve film and show film.”

A closet full of reels
A closet full of reelsCredit: Max Thomsen

That emphasis on preservation is felt most palpably in the Doc projection booth, a crowded space that feels like a cross between an attic and a college radio station. It’s here where Doc projectionists prep and test each film print and switch reels between the dual projectors during screenings.

As with its programming arm, Doc encourages anyone to learn this archaic, quickly- disappearing skill. Students and community members apprentice for several quarters to learn how to handle the film correctly and have to take a test before they can project on their own. Of course, there are occasional blips and errors, like the snafu during Singin’ in the Rain, that might be avoided at a professional theater. But Gonzalez says those mistakes are an essential part of the Doc Films charm.

“Even when the framing’s messed up or you see somebody repositioning, it’s like ‘Oh, I know that [a] projectionist is up there right now, they’re fixing it, they probably messed up,'” Gonzalez says. “I don’t think anybody goes in, knowing Doc Films, thinking this is going to be an absolutely perfect, seamless experience.”

At Doc, the trade-off you get for sacrificing a flawless viewing experience is a reminder that the moviegoing experience can be something more than the result of a panoptic algorithm tracking your every scroll and click. At Doc and elsewhere, the analog click and flicker of an old film print feels comfortable, a reassurance that there are humans working up in that booth.

For Chicago filmmaker Gordon Quinn, that experience—the human experience—is an essential part of watching films in the first place.

“It’s very very different to see a film with a group of people, to experience them experiencing the film,” he says. “When they sigh, when they laugh, all of that is a very different kind of experience. So I really believe in public space and people coming together in those spaces to experience something, to experience a work of art.”

Quinn is the cofounder and artistic director of Kartemquin Films, a local production house that has had a hand in some of the best documentaries to come out of the midwest over the past few decades, notably 1994’s Hoop Dreams and last year’s Minding the Gap, both of which were nominated for Academy Awards.

But before all that, he was just another movie-loving undergrad at the University of Chicago in the early 60s when he discovered Doc Films. Quinn says it was one particular documentary he saw at Doc—Happy Mother’s Day, a 1963 short about the birth of the Fischer quintuplets in South Dakota—that sparked the beginning of his filmmaking career.

“When I saw that it was like, ‘Ah, that’s what I want to do.’ I mean it was just like seeing that film was one of those life-changing experiences.”

Since he graduated, Quinn’s had an ongoing relationship with Doc. In 2011, the club held a Kartemquin retrospective, and in February of this year, Quinn screened his 1968 film Inquiring Nuns and stayed for a post-show Q and A. He’ll also be in attendance at the first-ever Doc Films Festival, a two-day event over Memorial Day weekend that’s showcasing documentaries by Chicago-area filmmakers.

In the booth
In the boothCredit: Max Thomsen

Spaces like Doc, Quinn says, are more than just movie theaters: they’re vital democratic institutions.

“It’s one of the powerful ways in which ideas and politics and things are discussed. Everyone has shared an experience. They may have not seen it all the same way, but they’ve all sat there and seen it together, and that’s really important, in terms of how we create more of a sense of community, across various kinds of divisions.”

It’s a balance that Doc strikes tenderly. It’s both a community institution, centered on education and discovery, and a space for friends to just watch films together.

“The point of Doc has never been to just make as much money as we can so that we’re sustainable,” Awano says. “It’s just to have this experience with other students and community members, [to] hang out and watch movies. It’s a luxury to be able to do that.”   v

Doc Films Fest 5/25-5/26: 10 AM, Max Palevsky Cinema, 1212 E. 59th, 773-702-8574,, $9-$24 one-day pass, $14-$39 two-day pass.