Chaz Ebert: Welcome to Ebertfest!

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By Chaz Ebert

With Chris Rock’s Oscar monologue about diversity still fresh in our minds, the 18th annual Ebertfest is geared toward championing diversity in all its forms. Both Roger and I believed that one of cinema’s chief purposes is to enable audiences to view the world through the eyes of another, enabling us to empathize with the perspectives of different people both domestically and from around the globe. We will be celebrating female directors and actors, technicians, older filmmakers, filmmakers documenting peace in the Middle East, and African-American directors, as well as directors from Mexico and the Netherlands by way of Australia. Our panels will tackle topics of inclusiveness and how that adds to a civility that we aren’t finding in some of our presidential debates this year. And for the very first time we will introduce the inaugural Ebert Humanitarian Award.

I hope you are as delighted as I am to be welcomed by the handsome sculpture of Roger outside of the Virginia Theatre. When it was sculpted by the artist Rick Harney at the request of Donna and Scott Anderson, I had no way of knowing it would become one of the most popular installations in Champaign-Urbana. Each week we see photos posted on social media of people who joyously sit next to Roger and give the Thumbs-Up! I am especially gladdened by the photos of children who seem to take extra delight in sitting next to him.

Once again, we are striving to shine a light on films that deserve to be rediscovered, including underrated gems from last year. We’re thrilled to welcome Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, the visionary auteur best known for his 2006 masterwork, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a film Roger so loved that he inducted it into his Great Movies series a mere year after its release. I wish Roger had been able to see del Toro’s latest visual marvel, “Crimson Peak,” the gothic horror fantasy that will open Ebertfest 2016.

We will have a special premiere of “Disturbing The Peace,” a film about Israelis and Palestinians who buck the powers that be in order to strive for peace. Once enemy combatants, they go through a miraculous transformation to form a coalition called the Combatants for Peace. The film’s directors, Steve Apkon and Andrew Young will be here. Joining them will be the Story Consultant Marcina Hale and some of the Combatants for Peace (Chen Alon and Sulaiman Khatib) who will be visiting from Israel. This film, illustrating a powerful aspect of empathy, will receive the first Ebert Humanitarian Award.

We will also be screening several of Roger’s favorite films, all of which he awarded four stars. Legendary script supervisor Angela Allen will accompany a screening of Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece, “The Third Man,” a film Roger ranked alongside the greatest films of all time. “It told a story of existential loss and betrayal,” wrote Roger. “It was weary and knowing, and its glorious style was an act of defiance against the corrupt world it pictured.” This screening is made possible by a grant from The Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Another famous Allen attending our festival — unrelated to Angela — is actress Nancy Allen, who was so unforgettable as the scheming bully in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie.” She’ll be joining us to discuss another De Palma classic, 1981’s “Blow Out,” which Roger hailed as the director’s “best and most original work.”

A film that will be especially glorious to experience on the big screen is 2003’s “Northfork,” a film Roger compared to Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” and Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire.” “The movie is visionary and elegiac, more a fable than a story, and frame by frame, it looks like a portfolio of spaces so wide, so open, that men must wonder if they have a role beneath such indifferent skies,” wrote Roger. The film’s director, Michael Polish will join us.

Beach Boys fans will be especially pleased with our next selection, “Love & Mercy,” a widely acclaimed biopic on the challenged life of the band’s iconic leader, Brian Wilson, played at different ages by John Cusack and Paul Dano. This film is being sponsored by the Champaign County Alliance for the Promotion of Acceptance, Inclusion and Respect.

I am pleased to welcome three extraordinary female directors as first-time guests at Ebertfest. Kasi Lemmons will be on hand to discuss her 1997 debut, “Eve’s Bayou,” which Roger declared as “one of the very best films of the year” and “a film of astonishing maturity and confidence.” “She sets her story in Southern Gothic country, in the bayous and old Louisiana traditions that Tennessee Williams might have been familiar with, but in tone and style she earns comparison with the family dramas of Ingmar Bergman,” wrote Roger.

Joining her are two women, one of whom helmed her first feature last year, and the film is a remarkable achievement. Windy City documentarians Rebecca Parrish and Nicole Bernard-Reis will be here with “Radical Grace,” their crowd-pleasing profile of the Nuns on the Bus, who became engaged in social activism despite protests from the Vatican. They won the Chicago Award at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival. Parrish and Bernard-Reis will be joined on stage by Father Mike Pfleger, the activist priest from the South Side of Chicago who stands up for justice even when he has to speak truth to power. He was portrayed by John Cusack in Spike Lee’s recent film, “Chi-Raq.”

The iconic Lily Tomlin will headline “Grandma,” a film about a 70-year-old worldly grandmother who is on a mission to help her granddaughter with an unwanted pregnancy. The film’s director, Paul Weitz (“About A Boy,” “American Pie”), and its producer, Andrew Miano, will join us.

This year’s installment of Ebertfest marks the first time in our history that two silent films are included in our scheduled programming. The wonderful Alloy Orchestra (Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger Miller) will deliver its 16th performance at our festival, providing a live accompaniment to Marcel L’Herbier’s staggering 1924 landmark, “L’inhumaine” (“The Inhuman Woman”). French film historian Richard Neupert will be on hand to discuss the film with the Alloy Orchestra. This screening is sponsored by Steak ‘n Shake.

Renee Baker and The Chicago Modern Orchestra Project will be making their Ebertfest debut when they perform their new jazz score for 1925’s “Body and Soul,” directed by the trailblazing black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. “Body and Soul” marked the film debut of legendary actor Paul Robeson, who plays a double role of the villain and the preacher. In another first, the entire 13-piece orchestra of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project will perform in the orchestra pit of the Virginia Theatre. That will take some doing as the pit was built to hold about ten musicians.

And last but not least, we will welcome back director Paul Cox with his new romantic film, “Force of Destiny,” which tackles some of the issues he confronted with his liver transplant. I’m especially excited that Cox will be here to present “Force of Destiny,” because it will serve as the film’s American premiere. Joining him will be the object of his love, Rosie Raka.

In addition to the films, we will present stimulating academic panels with Gil Robertson, the head of the African American Film Critics Association, and Shawn Edwards, its cofounder. You will also be welcomed into a community of movie review writers populated by numerous special guests that include film critics Leonard Maltin, Michael Phillips, Nell Minow, Matt Zoller-Seitz, Sheila O’Malley, Brian Tallerico, Susan Wloszczyna, Matt Fagerholm, Nick Allen, Mark Dujsik, Angelica Jade Bastién, and Chuck Koplinski.

As always, this program goes to press before a few things are finalized, so expect some surprise guests and films and please understand that there may be some changes over which we have no control.

I am grateful to Roger’s alma mater, the College of Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for making it possible to gather once again and welcome the 1500 guests to the Virginia Theatre. I say a special thanks to University of Illinois President Timothy L. Killeen and to Dean Jan Slater of the College of Media for their generous support.

I announced the start of the Roger Ebert Center to be located within the College of Media. It will maintain Roger’s legacy of passing forward the values of empathy and compassion through cinema and to encourage and support emerging writers, technologists and filmmakers at Ebertfest and other events throughout the year. We are about halfway to our financial goal of $5 million to qualify as a Center, and I will call on you to help make it a reality.

Professor Nate Kohn from the University of Georgia’s Grady College has been the festival director since day one and we are fortunate to have him continue in that role. Nate is an Urbana native and Illinois alum, so Ebertfest is close to his heart. Please welcome Casey Ludwig, who is taking Mary Susan Britt’s place as the assistant director. This will be Casey’s first Ebertfest, so please stop to say hello. She has been working hard to make it as flawless as possible.

Steven Bentz and his cheerful staff at the Virginia Theatre put out the welcome mat. The Champaign Park District and the Champaign Police Department are always helpful. Betsy Hendrick throws her now-legendary Saturday night party. Where would we be without our fabled projectionist James Bond, who maintains the highest of standards whether projecting 70 mm, 35 mm, 3-D or digital prints. We are so grateful for their continued help.

We thank our friend Bertha Mitchell, who serves her famous downstate barbecue from the tent in front of the theater. She comes back year after year, all while trying to support her gifted hockey playing son Marcus in Canada and the U.S. Mrs. Mitchell and other vendors make it convenient for our festival-goers to grab a bite to eat in between movies. Thanks also goes to the Illini Union, which plays host for most of our guests in the heart of the campus.

Our sponsors are crucial. They help make the festival possible. Without their financial support we could not undertake the festival year after year. Some sponsors have been with us all 18 years; some are with us for the first time this year. We say a special thanks to some of our leading sponsors: The Champaign County Alliance for the Promotion of Acceptance, Inclusion and Respect; Steak ‘n Shake; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; the Hollywood Foreign Press Association; SAG-Indie; The News-Gazette; and the Ebert Foundation.

Volunteers serve in many ways, including serving as drivers and guides for festival guests. They also help to plan the festival logistics and serve as ticket takers and ushers at the Virginia. We thank them for their loyalty and continuing support.

Thank you to Leone Advertising, who is our invaluable Webmaster at ebertfest.com; Carlton Bruett, who is responsible for the posters and the look of the festival; and The Daily Illini, which produces this splendid program. And once again I want to call attention to our Ebertfest iPad App from Shatterglass Studios. The app contains every festival interview, photograph, review, panel discussion, link and artifact that we could find from the first fifteen Ebertfests. It is available on iTunes. Our thanks to Shatterglass for doing this and for the spectacular festival videos they do for us every year. Look for Luke Boyce and Brett Hays, the Shatterglass guys, around the festival.

And finally, I want to thank the festival-goers who keep coming back year after year. Thank you for uncovering cinema gems with us, and thank you also to those who are joining us for the first time. Thank you for honoring Roger’s memory and for keeping his legacy alive. In the tradition of Roger, I encourage you to please greet your fellow festival-goers. As Roger used to paraphrase a well-known movie title, they’re no longer strangers when they meet.