AMI's Screen/Society series shows films the way they're meant to be shown

The Rubenstein Arts Center, which is scheduled to open next semester, will include a 35mm film projector.
The Rubenstein Arts Center, which is scheduled to open next semester, will include a 35mm film projector.

It seems nearly impossible to walk around campus and not find people streaming shows and movies from their laptops — huddled in a corner booth at The Loop or holed up in Perkins, their screen split between organic chemistry notes and Netflix. I’ve even seen people watch episodes of their favorite show on Amazon with the sound muted so as not to attract unwanted attention at work. I don’t personally have a Hulu account, but my aunt does; without it, how could I watch old episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” when I should be studying for my midterm instead? 

Each of these streaming services (and many others) has come to reshape the ways we view digital media. Our culture is one that allows us to constantly bombard ourselves with images — film and otherwise — all on a screen no more than 15 inches wide. And while none of us would give up our 24-hour access to all nine seasons of “How I Met Your Mother,” we do have to acknowledge the ways in which streaming services have transformed spectatorship — not necessarily for the better. 

Screen/Society is Duke’s film and video exhibition program, dedicated to keeping the practice of traditional film-viewing alive despite our shifting tendency toward digitally-streamed, small-format viewing. According to program coordinator Hank Okazaki, the merit in viewing film in its original format lies in its ability to foster community and open dialogue. 

“People have so many more options of ways in which to see films. There’s less appreciation for seeing it on the full, big screen format for which is was designed, and in a communal way,” Okazaki said. “For folks to venture out and see films that way, instead of on a small screen in a distracted environment, is a richer experience.” 

Screen/Society has taken it upon itself to provide opportunities to see films in this way — on the big screen surrounded by peers and, sometimes, the filmmakers themselves. The program shows a variety of films, including foreign films, documentaries, experimental films and classics, that are either contemporary works or works that have been instrumental in the evolution of film as a medium. 

“[We want] to show interesting and challenging works that are not usually seen on campus, especially on the big screen, and then also to provide context for those films by having faculty members introduce them,” Okazaki said. “Sometimes there is a discussion or Q&A afterwards; sometimes we bring in filmmakers and have panels.” 

Perhaps the most unique characteristic of Screen/Society is its interaction with faculty and organizations both at Duke and beyond. Though the program began as a graduate student group in the late 1980s, it is now run as a departmental program through Duke’s film program, Arts of the Moving Image (AMI). Since becoming connected to AMI, Screen/Society has partnered with Duke faculty and institutions to provide themed series, as well as individual screenings. 

“There’s a number of film series that happen maybe once a year or, in some cases, a few films each semester,” Okazaki said. “There are several different series, and then there are some individual screenings, sometimes connected with a filmmaker or other person connected to campus. Sometimes it’ll be a professor talking about a particular topic, and we’ll show a documentary on the same topic, or something like that.” 

The bulk of Okazaki’s job is hunting down and presenting these films, and he is excited by the ways the new Rubenstein Arts Center will open up the films he is able to show. Though he doesn’t shy away from projecting 16mm films, there is no proper projection equipment for showing 35mm films on campus. According to Okazaki, the Arts Center will rectify this problem.

“Moving forward, with the opening of the new Rubenstein Arts Center, which will have 35mm projection, we will start showing 35mm” films again, he said. “We’ll be able to start [pulling from] the archives to show 35mm prints that normally are limited in their circulation. Few places have the proper projection facilities [to show them].”

This semester, Screen/Society is partnering with the Asian/Pacific Studies Institute to bring East Asian films to campus with their Cine-East: East Asian Cinema series.The series, co-sponsored by the AMI Program and the Department of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, consists of seven films from the region including Kazuhiro Soda’s 2015 film “Oyster Factory.” Screen/Society also showed Evan Chan’s 2016 film “Raise the Umbrellas,” after which attendees engaged in a panel discussion led by Chan himself. Of the approximately 80 screenings Screen/Society does each year, Okazaki estimated that about 40% of them have some sort of discussion panel component and that filmmakers are present at about 20% of screenings. 

On working with professors and other groups to organize screenings, Okazaki said, “The organizers of the series will come with ideas that they have, and I’ll research the availability and cost of the films, and we go from there to settle on a final lineup. I track down the distributors and arrange for the films and the screening rights, book the venues and then do advertising.” 

Though less common, Okazaki said that Screen/Society has previously partnered with student-run organizations on campus to provide topical series or screenings of interest to the members. 

“[We’ve worked with] the Native American Student Alliance (NASA) [to bring] director Chris Eyre who directed ‘Smoke Signals,’” Okazaki said. “He had a newer film that he was showing. Many years ago, the International Association showed four films from different parts of the world.”

In addition to these screenings co-sponsored by institutions and organizations, Screen/Society runs the AMI Showcase, a series of films shown specifically for the AMI program. Within this series, Okazaki shows Duke student films, faculty films and alumni films all hand-chosen by him and AMI faculty. In fact, the next screening in the AMI Showcase series is the AMI Student Film Festival on Nov. 14. This showing will feature some of the AMI instructors’ favorite student works from last semester.

Though many of us may praise Netflix, Amazon and Hulu for the unfettered access they provide to both contemporary and older films and television shows, there is something to be said for watching a film the way it was meant to be viewed — on a large cinema screen, in the dark, in a shared space.

As Sunday Salon film curator and MFA student Lexi Bass said in a previous interview, “There’s a way to engage in spirituality with a group of people, in the dark. [We’re] able to reflect on things that don’t necessarily lend themselves to words.”

So go see a film. Sit in the dark with other people and engage in something spiritual. Talk about your experience of that film, of that space and of yourself as a viewer. Pull yourself out of your Netflix queue for an hour or two and experience cinema the way it was intended to be experienced.

To see a full schedule of Screen/Society’s Fall Semester screenings, visit


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