Searching for Scav: Putting the venerable University of Chicago tradition on film

For all its grandeur and excess, Scav Hunt at the University of Chicago is a rather polarizing event. You have your die-hards, for whom Scav is the yearly orgasm, and your lifers, who should be sliming onto the quads from their programmers’ dens and miscellaneous adult lives as you read this. At the other end, you have the vaguely disdainful or indifferent mass of students who never got into the fold, or those who enjoy the concept but find the elements of personal devotion off-putting. Scav can be thought of as a kind of nationalism: for the Great Powers–Max Palevsky, Snell-Hitchcock, and F.I.S.T. (Federation of Independent Scav Teams)–the goal is nothing short of glory, and scores of willing souls are routinely sacrificed for it. It’s been said that a certain group’s totalitarianism makes for a large turn-over in participation from year to year, and the Party veterans will spend months trying to lure the incoming first years in order to amass the necessary fodder for their scav-machine.

David Franklin is one who lives for the manic geeky-ness of those four days. Last year, he was drafted to be the RA of Hitchcock, which involved defecting from his native Max Palevsky. The rivalry between the two is the stuff of local lore, and so Franklin chose the obvious third route: he would make a feature-length movie out of it. Originally he thought it would be a straight-up documentation of the event, along the lines of “The Hunt,” a film made in 2002. “As I started thinking about it more, I realized that it was going to be about the people of Scav Hunt, to see how they changed and how their lives were influenced by it. From there the idea of the production changed and become more of a documentary that tracks individuals in the teams that are representative of their team.”

Franklin, who has been shooting interviews with captains and footage of the year-long preparatory events (including dumpster diving) since the fall, has put together three separate three-man crews that will mostly follow the three largest teams. Their jobs are to document items and goings-on within each team, but also to follow and try to understand the people within them regardless of their hierarchical importance. He’s given the other two directors, Tiffany Salone and Theo Burtis, autonomous control of their shoots, with a basic guideline: capture the individual’s experience. “I want heavy coverage of the time-sensitive events. The Thursday morning race, the Friday party, Scav Olympics on Saturday morning, and Judgement Sunday will act as the major structural points. In between it will be improvised because no one has any idea other than the judges what’s on the list, each director will have to pick for themselves which are the coolest and most compelling of the items and track their completion.” Franklin has provided the road trip crews ten tapes to self-document their experience as well as particular items. In the final cut, these more candid glimpses from the road will punctuate each of the larger segments of the hunt. Aside from that, Franklin has only a basic sense of how he’s going to put together the 200 freaking hours of footage he plans to shoot: “The structure of the movie will be dictated by what sort of footage I get … it’ll have its arch of action from before then during then after. The climax of course will be the pronouncement of who wins. For the denouement … I’m going to film some stuff ninth week [of the academic quarter] about Scav withdrawal, which is an interesting phenomenon. It’ll have pretty conventional structure, but the subject matter obviously is entirely unconventional.” He plans to make editing his second summer job and hopes to have something to show by his self-imposed fall deadline, so that he can get it scored. Ideally, the film will be released mid-fall at Doc Films so that students see it before Franklin submits it to film festivals. “Best case scenario: someone pick it up for distribution. But if I can get it into a couple festivals and get it seen, I’ll be happy.”

On judgement day, upwards of 1,000 things will be performed or displayed within Ida Noyes Hall. It all seems like an aberration: it’s inconceivable that so much creative energy should be poured into four days, all for the sake of a few hours of ephemera and collective sentiment. (Most of the items will be in the dumpsters by Monday, a few will be passed down as heirlooms.) But the sheer force of this absurdity is what makes the whole ordeal so compelling, collectivism and all, and arguably so worthwhile. Franklin hopes some of this grandiosity will be captured by the film – “I want it to be an exciting and slightly frenetic competition documentary, and not only because [those] are commercially viable these days. I want people to sit down, feel invested in how it turns out – in what team wins and doesn’t win. I want them to be invested in a first year’s first experience in Scav and how it contributes to how they live their life. I want people to understand the importance of Scav Hunt … not just for people here, but as a symbol of human ingenuity and collective effervescence.”