Ebertfest lights up silver screen at Virginia Theatre

By Caroline Sweeney, Staff Writer

The 2023 Roger Ebert Film Festival, known as Ebertfest, took place from Wednesday to Saturday at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign. The event included a collection of film screenings and guest appearances.

Ebertfest began on Wednesday with a showing of “Nine Days.” According to Ebertfest’s website, Edson Oda, the film’s writer and director, made an appearance along with Jason Michael Berman, the film’s producer. 

Thursday’s screenings began with “Tokyo Story” at 9:30 a.m. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” was shown at 2 p.m. with special guests The Anvil Orchestra.

“My Name is Sara” was shown at 4 p.m. on Thursday and follows the story of Sara Góralnik, a woman who escaped Nazis in 1942 by fleeing her hometown in Poland and making her way to the Ukrainian countryside.

After “My Name is Sara” concluded, Steven Oritt, the film’s director, and Mickey Shapiro, executive producer and eldest son of the main character, were part of the subsequent panel.

Molly Cornyn, the project coordinator at Ebertfest, said she thinks Holocaust stories are important to tell.

“The fact that we were lucky enough to have two people on that stage like Mickey Shapiro and Dr. William Gingold — who was himself a child Holocaust survivor — is so impactful,” Cornyn said.

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Thursday concluded with “American Folk” at 9 p.m. 

“American Folk” is a film about two folk singers traveling cross-country from California to New York immediately following the events of 9/11. The film shows people who weren’t directly affected by the events of 9/11 and expressed how they were still impacted by the tragedy.

Before the screening, actress Amber Rubarth and writer, editor and director David Heinz came out to discuss the film.

“The theme of empathy … is so resonant with the experience of filming this movie,” Rubarth said. “And through the heart that David brought to the writing and directing of it.”

Rubarth said she is actually a folk singer in real life as well as in the film, and it shows throughout the project. This is the first project she’s acted in, though she has prior experience developing original songs and scores for different projects.

Michelle Gonzales, an event attendee, said she appreciated the diversity in the cast.

“You could tell that they were very intentional with the actors they chose … all just to show that we’re resilient through all of this craziness of everything,” Gonzales said. 

Heinz said in the discussion panel after the screening that this time was sort of a fleeting moment where everyone was just all in it together. He mentioned how they met many people that influenced their story along the course of filming. 

“The kindness of strangers showed itself in a lot of ways while making the film,” Heinz said.

According to Ebertfest’s website, Friday’s screenings began with “To Leslie” at 10 a.m. and director Michael Morris made an appearance. 

At 2:30 p.m., “Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands” was shown with several special guests: producer Brenda Robinson, director and producer Rita Coburn, vocalist Viveca Richards and pianist Katie Barr. 

“In & of Itself” was shown at 7:30 p.m. with special guests. Creator and performer Derek DelGaudio, director Frank Oz, producer Jake Friedman and producer Vanessa Lauren all made appearances. 

Oz was in a panel on Friday following the screening of “In & of Itself.” Before this film, he was well known for being the puppeteer for Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the voice of Yoda.

Saturday morning was a double short feature of “Team Dream” and “Club Alli,” two films made by Black filmmakers. 

“Team Dream” is a nonfiction short film surrounding Madeline Murphy Rabb, who is in her 70s, and Ann Smith, who is in her 80s, as they decide to become competitive swimmers.

The film accentuates older women who are making their own dreams come true. They do this through Team Dream, an organization where women of color connect through shared experiences of training and becoming competing athletes.

During the panel after the showing of both shorts, Smith and Rabb both talked about how they’ve changed since starting to train and compete and what inspired them to do all of this in the first place. 

“When I retired and I was in my 70s, I decided, ‘I think I want to be an athlete, and I think I’m going to start by being a triathlete,’” Smith said. “I decided to do it because I wanted to maintain good health until I’m in my one hundreds.”

Kylie Harris, a festival attendee, was happy to see this.

“I’m a woman of color myself, so to see those mentors and such amazing ladies in that space is inspiring and very important for our youth,” Harris said.

“Club Alli” is from a younger generation of creators: Justen and Julien Turner. The film is based on a historical event and is a sci-fi drama that depicts the socioeconomic divide that exists in America.

“We found inspiration and parallels from what was going on at the time with the protests for George Floyd and the unrest,” Julien Turner said during the panel following the screening.

The film takes an event that happened in the 1910s and brings it to the future while also including easter eggs that hint to society’s current state.

Though the short is under 10 minutes, it brings up topics from current events.

Harris emphasized the importance of Black creativity.

“I think it’s very important for young Black children to see that you can take your creativity and really run with it and this too could be you,” Harris said.

At 10:30 a.m. Saturday, “Fresh” was shown and producer Lawrence Bender was the special guest. 

At 3:00 p.m., “Wings of Desire” was shown and Michael Barker, the co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, was the guest. 

The final screening of Ebertfest was “Forrest Gump” at 8:30 p.m. Mykelti Williamson, who played Bubba in “Forrest Gump,” attended the panel following the screening.

Cornyn said the best part of working with Ebertfest is the conversations she gets to have with different people, whether it’s people she works with or people attending the festival.

“There is such a positive feeling and positive response,” Cornyn said. “Everybody just feels such joy to be here and it’s just such an amazing thing to see all that joy.”


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