Rebecca Hall, 25, arrived here from Connecticut in 2005 to study anthropology at the University of Chicago and soon became active as a film projectionist around town, doing shows at Doc Films, Gene Siskel Film Center, and the University of Chicago Film Studies Center. She and Julian Antos were the last programmers of the 30-year-old Classic Film Series at the Bank of America in Old Irving Park; when the series lost its corporate sponsorship in 2010, they banded together with Kyle Westphal to launch the Northwest Chicago Film Society, whose quirky and adventurous Wednesday-night shows are a highlight of Chicago moviegoing. —J.R. Jones
I didn’t see a lot of movies growing up. I was not allowed to watch television. So it was sort of a surprise when I was in high school that my mother suddenly was very enthusiastic about the idea of going to this silent film festival that had popped up in this little town in Maine where my grandfather lived. And so we went and that was the first time I ever realized that you could see old films on film—and probably that films were shown on film at all and not just some kind of apparition that was mysterious and similar to what you would see on a television screen. It’s hard to explain, because I don’t completely remember what it was like to not know how movies actually work. But it was pretty gripping, the idea that there’s all this physical machinery behind it.
When I was young, even before high school, I was interested in historical archaeology, archaeology of the recent past. And this was basically the discovery of a whole new type of physical artifact for me—that cinema culture had these physical underpinnings I hadn’t known about at all. My thoughts were not that sophisticated at this point because I was probably 16. But that’s what happened.
There was a tiny little art house in New Haven, Connecticut, where I grew up, but I wasn’t really allowed to go out to movies anyway. My emergent interest in film culture had to wait until I came to Chicago, which is probably one of the best places that somebody interested in film, and especially in film projection, the physical side of film, could enter. So I was a student at the University of Chicago and went out for Doc Films, as many people do. There are hundreds of Doc Films volunteers at the U. of C. I was one of them, and all I wanted to do was get into the booth and learn how to run the projectors.
Part of why the name of the Film Society is so generic is that we had very little time to pull it together, and I guess we’re not very good at coming up with names in a hurry. We were sort of planning and figuring things out and learning on the fly. Like, oh, this is how you incorporate a not-for-profit in Illinois! And, you know, fortunately, it all did come together and we’ve been able to keep things going really nicely at the Portage for the past two years.
We are obsessed with the medium. We always want to be showing something that originated as film on film. I suppose we could have an argument about whether it still counts if it’s a 16-millimeter reduction of something that originated on 35, but that’s a whole different discussion. Our priorities are weighted in such a way that if it was born on celluloid and we can’t get celluloid, we won’t show it. Anyone can get a DVD or order the VHS version of the 1951 Native Son adaptation from Amazon. But the point of what we’re doing is we’re not going to give you that. We’re going to give you the restoration that the Library of Congress did. God, I don’t know how to say any of this without sounding like an asshole.