More than the movies: 17th Ebertfest brings sense of community

By Annabeth Carlson, Assistant features editor

In The Virginia Theatre’s gold, ornate rooms, the aroma of popcorn wafted through the air Wednesday night as people socialized and took programs from ushers.

Outside, the theatre’s sign illuminated the reason behind the commotion: 17th annual Ebertfest.

Ebertfest, founded by the late-movie critic and University alumnus Roger Ebert, took place Wednesday through Sunday. Beginning in 1998, Ebert formed the festival to recognize movies that didn’t receive the credit and attention they deserved. It takes place at The Virginia Theatre every April, drawing in people from the C-U community, University and beyond. This year’s festival featured 13 movies and notable guests such as director James Ponsoldt, actor Jason Segel, actress Julieta Zylberberg and the Alloy Orchestra.

The festival opened with “Goodbye to Language,” the first 3D movie in Ebertfest history. Next, there was the “Harold Ramis Tribute,” which featured short clips from Ramis’s movies and a panel including his wife Erica Ramis and producer Trevor Albert.

Ebert’s wife Chaz Ebert, who hosts and organizes the film festival, introduced the tribute and guests, expressing her fondness of Ramis. “He truly was a renaissance man,” Chaz said. “When you look at his work, he was in almost every aspect of entertainment — a writer, a producer, a director, an actor.”

On Thursday night, actor Jason Segel was in attendance because of his role as David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour.” The movie was pre-released for the festival. Sherry Slade, a volunteer zone-leader and usher for the VIP section, said it was difficult to fit everyone in the theatre. “When you get big names, you get huge crowds,” Slade said.

Slade said she has been volunteering at Ebertfest since it began 17 years ago. She explained that she went to school with Roger Ebert at Urbana High School. Slade said the festival brings all of the action to the C-U area.

“If you read the newspapers, everything is pretty much around Ebertfest when this is going on,” she said. “It’s the talk of the town, and it does a lot for businesses.”

Friday’s movies included “Girlhood,” from France, “The Son of the Sheik,” a silent film featuring the Alloy Orchestra, and the 1993 film, “A Bronx Tale.”

Michael Barker, Sony Pictures Classics Co-Founder and Co-President, introduced the Argentinian film “Wild Tales” on Saturday, which is comprised of six different comedic story lines. Barker was Ebert’s friend and has been a festival regular since 2001.

Barker said Ebertfest is different than other festivals because only one movie is shown at a time. He said this allows people watching films like “Wild Tales” to focus and not let anything else in their brains for two hours.

“That is how you can get films to really give meaning to life, to focus and pay attention to the glory of something that, in our normal everyday lives, we would just go and let it pass,” he said. “That is just an amazing thing.”

Usher Carlo Anzelmo, along with his wife, Peggy, has also been a volunteer usher for 16 out of the 17 years.

Anzelmo said the people are his favorite part of the festival.

“They are such a wonderful group of people, all dedicated to one thing,” he said. “The people (who) keep coming back year after year is even better.”

Kim Jing, junior in LAS, however, volunteered at the festival for the first time. She said she decided to be an usher because she loves movies, and Ebertfest is the big film scene in Champaign-Urbana.

In addition to the popcorn, candy and “Thumbs Up” (Ebert’s trademark) iced cookies offered at the theatre concessions, there were food trucks including Steak ‘n Shake, a local favorite of Ebert’s, and artists selling their wares in a tent outside Saturday.

Eric Irion was one of the artists. Irion, who owns Irion Photography, said the tent was made up of members of the Champaign Disability Resource Expo, an organization that has attended Ebertfest for the past three years.

“(Ebertfest) gives us an opportunity to show our art, just like film is an art,” Irion said.

After the “Wild Tales” viewing Saturday, Barker reflected on what Ebert would think of last weekend’s festival. “The thing about Roger, I think he designed everything for the future. He planned and saw this moment,” Barker said. “When you look at this theatre, and you say to yourself, ‘There are so many people in the world that would say what’s happening here in this theatre is an obsolete thing.’ Well, it’s not obsolete because this viewing experience is more urgent than ever, and I think he predicted that importance.”

Barker also thanked the audience for its loyalty to the festival. He said he remembered Ebert telling the audience, “We have a lot of friends in the room.”

“There is no question (that Ebert) is here with us every minute of every day of this festival,” Barker said. “That’s because of you.”

After the final film, “Seymour: An Introduction,” was shown Sunday morning, the curtain closed and the crowds left, along with the smell of popcorn. Notable guests like Barker and Chaz returned home, and volunteer usher Anzelmo went back to his regular job as a master gardener.

The memories of this year’s Ebertfest, however, will remain with everyone who attended. Until next year.

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