Ebertfest 2019: A Glorious Celebration of Cinema

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CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS — The cinema celebration known as Ebertfest takes place annually in this university town that ranks 10th largest on Illinois’ city size chart and boasts a movie-loving population with an unusual dedication to cinema culture.

That dedication is clearly attached to Ebertfest, otherwise known as Roger Ebert’s Film Festival. This year’s 21st edition of the four-day event took place from April 10-13 at the Virginia Theater, one of two classic movie palaces beautifully restored and maintained by movie-loving Champaign.

That Ebertfest and Champaign are cinema soulmates is easily understood. Champaign is where iconic film critic Roger Ebert — known to scores of adoring followers simply as Roger — spent his youth and began his journalistic career, and where he founded the festival in 1999 with the specific purpose of screening great films that had been previously overlooked and/or are deserving of another viewing and round of enthusiastic applause in a grand movie theater with a top quality sound system.

Since Roger Ebert’s untimely passing in April of 2013, Ebertfest and it’s unusual mission have been carried on by Chaz Ebert as a tribute to her late husband and partner. Ebertfest is now dedicated to augmenting Roger’s legacy view of cinema as love and empathy.

The annual Ebertfest program consists of but a dozen films. It is, as film festivals go, very small. But, it has enormous heart and emanates influence far and wide.

Actually, Ebertfest is unique in its pure and glorious celebration of cinema. It’s all about thumbs up! Instead of high profile premieres, Ebertfest’s agenda is the screening of great films — all genres and formats eligible — that may have been overlooked when they were released and/or films that, for one good reason or another, should be seen and appreciated anew in a grand theater, on a huge screen, with superb sound. Instead of high pressure competitions and red carpet spectacle, Ebertfest presents golden ‘thumbs up’ trophies to all invited artists.

Additionally, at each festival, Chaz Ebert honors several people whose contributions to cinema have been outstanding. This year’s special honorees were actor Scott Wilson (1942-2018), director Jonathan Demme (1944-2017) and Richard Roeper, Roger’s colleague in criticism at The Chicago Sun-Times and on television.

At Ebertfest, films are screened one at a time and once only, so all festival attendees watch each selection together, sharing the experience and developing a strong sense of community. Additionally, each screening is followed by an informal Q&A with the film’s director or lead actors and knowledgeable filmmakers, critics and educators. The Q&As are remarkably intimate, candid and respectful, always informative and often quite amusing.

Needless to say, Ebertfest is enormously popular with loyal fans who attend year after year, many of them boasting attendance since year one. Lines form outside the Virginia Theater for every screening. Most attendees pause to take a snapshot of themselves next to the statue of Roger — with his right thumb up, of course — situated near the theater entrance.

Chaz Ebert graciously introduces each film and its filmmakers and other festival guests, including honorees, scholars and critics. She sets the festival’s theme and curates the program, working along with long time collaborator and festival director, Nate Kohn.

The program is always comprised of films that Roger Ebert loved and championed during his lifelong career, or those that express the artistry and social values that he most admired. This year’s beautifully balanced program featured twelve feature length films and one short. The majority of films were selected from Roger’s four-star review list.

This year’s opening night film was Amazing Grace, the roof-raising biodoc about Aretha Franklin’s return to gospel music. The screening was followed by a Q&A, moderated by Chaz Ebert with producers Allan Elliott and Tirrell Whitley, and critic Whitney Spence. The Q&A was followed by a spirited live performance by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir of Champaign-Urbana.

Thursday, day two, began with two timely film-related panel discussions. The first, sponsored by the Campaign-Urbana Alliance for Acceptance, Inclusion & Respect – Eradicating Stigma Through the Arts, was a compelling presentation about drug addiction, its impact on families and communities, and how it is represented in the media. With social workers and former addicts on the panel that was moderated by Dr. Eric Pierson, a University of San Diego professor who conducts social cinema outreach programs, the discussion was a smart prelude to an afternoon screening of Rachel Getting Married.

The second panel was a #MeToo movement discussion about women’s roles in the movie business — on screen, behind the cameras and in audiences. The key topic was whether women fare better in the indie film world than they do in Hollywood, with discussion embracing the need for greater opportunity for women filmmakers, greater recognition of excellent movies made by women despite obstacles, equal representation for women writing about film, and for confronting issues of ageism and the continued stereotyping of female characters. Moderated by Chaz Ebert, the panel included actresses Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly (the stars of Bound, on this year’s program), director Rita Coburn Whack (Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, on the program), Sony Classics Pictures co-president Michael Barker, producer Stephen Aptkow, critics Nell Minow, Carla Renata and Jennifer Merin (yes, that’s me).

The first screening of the day was the silent film Cœur Fidèle, accompanied by the brilliant Alloy Orchestra performing the fabulously intricate and varied score they composed for it. Critic Michael Phillips moderated the post-screening discussion with Alloy Orchestra’s composer/musicians Ken Winokur, Terry Donahue and Roger Miller.

Next came Rachel Getting Married, Ebertfest honoree Jonathan Demme‘s drug addiction drama, followed by a Q&A moderated by Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, with screenwriter Jenny Lumet (by screen), producer Stephen Aptkon and critic Nell Minow.

The Wachowski Brothers‘ classic neo-noir-ish indie hit Bound was then screened, followed by a hilariously candid Q&A moderated by Chaz Ebert with outspoken co-stars Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilley, and critics Pamela Powell and Chuck Koplinski.

Friday’s schedule included four feature films and one short. The day began with the screening of Sebastian, a four-minute first film from critic Sam Fragoso who’d been mentored by Roger. The beautifully composed film is about his grandfather’s immigration to the U.S. from Mexico. On the same bill was Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, the 2018 Oscar-nominated Polish narrative about lovers and crossing borders. After the film, Ebertfest Festival Director Nate Kohn and critics Carla Renata and Michael Phillips discussed the stunning film and its tragic love story.

Friday’s second screening was of Cane River, a recently restored 1982 African-American romance that was writer/director Horace Jenkins‘ only film. Leading lady Tommye Myrick, was on stage for the post-screening Q&A along with the film’s restorer, producer Sandra Shulberg, and Horace Jenkins’ cinema activist daughter, Dominque Jenkins, and moviemaker son, Sacha Jenkins. The discussion covered the importance of Cane River in the evolution of African-American cinema.

Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1984 Year of the Quiet Sun was Friday’s third presentation. A Roger Ebert favorite, the haunting post WWII love story between an American GI and a young Polish woman stars Ebertfest honoree Scott Wilson and Maja Komorowska. Dedicating the screening and the 2019 festival to Wilson’s memory, Chaz Ebert welcomed Heavenly Wilson and Maja Komorowska (who’d journeyed, with her grandson, from Warsaw to Champaign to attend Ebertfest) to the stage for an emotional Q&A, moderated by Nate Kohn (I, too, was on this panel, along with film scholar Todd Rendleman).

Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion completed the day’s screenings, with an entertaining post-screening conversation between director David Mirkin and critics Chuck Koplinski and Pamela Powell.

The festival’s final day presented another four features. The schedule began with a screening of the stirring biodoc Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, with director Rita Coburn Whack on stage for the Q&A, along with critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Whitney Spence. Rita Coburn Whack received Ebertfest’s first ever Icon Award for the film.

Next screened the affecting Mr.Rogers biodoc, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, with director Morgan Neville present for a Q&A with critics Nick Allen and Matt Fagerholm. Fagerholm’s reading of a beautiful letter he’d received from Mr. Rogers when he was but five years old drew thunderous applause. Morgan Neville received Ebertfest’s Humanitarian Award for the film.

Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, next on the schedule, was the choice of critic Richard Roeper, who moderated the post-screening Q&A with critics Brian Tallerico and Matt Zoller Seitz, along with critic/director Sam Fragoso.

This year’s festival’s final screening was of Alexander Payne’s Sideways. The post-screening Q&A was again moderated by Richard Roeper, with Sideways‘ leading lady Virginia Madsen (by screen) and critics Brian Tallerico and Nell Minow on stage.

To sum up Ebertfest, no words work better than those written by Chaz Ebert: “Over the years, Ebertfest has evolved into not only a place to celebrate cinema, but to celebrate the very best in human nature. We give ‘Humanitarian Awards’ to filmmakers who exhibit an unusually compassionate view of the world and this year, we honored Morgan Neville for his film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? about Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Additionally, we established the “Icon Award” and the inaugural award given to Rita Coburn for her film honoring icon Maya Angelou. The academic panels with the Champaign County Alliance for Inclusion and Respect contained in-depth discussions on eradicating stigma of addiction and mental and physical disabilities through the arts. The films chosen, whether domestic or foreign, result in an understanding of other peoples, other cultures, others in circumstances different from our own, with the core principles of empathy, kindness, compassion and forgiveness being woven into the fabric.”

Next year’s 22nd edition of Ebertfest will take place April 15-18, 2020 at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois, with related talks and panel discussions to be held at the Hyatt Place in Champaign and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. If you love film for film’s sake, be there!

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