A Film Critic’s Personal Journey to Ebertfest and Revisiting Her Childhood Home of University of Illinois
The 19th Annual Ebertfest Film Festival, April 19-23, was held at the historic 1,525-seat Virginia Theater and the University of Illinois campus in Champaign, IL. The festival highlighted a wide array of films, panels, and Q&A’s dedicated to the theme of empathy.
Ebertfest was founded in 1999 by the late Roger Ebert, a University of Illinois Journalism graduate and Pulitzer Prize award-winning Chicago film critic. The mission of the festival is to celebrate films that may have been overlooked by audiences, critics, and distributors.
Chaz Ebert, Roger’s beloved wife, business partner, and writer/publisher of RogerEbert.com, continues Roger’s legacy by serving as producer and host. She, along with Festival Director Nate Kohn, select films based on Roger’s criteria.
While driving to Ebertfest, this Chicago film critic was filled with an assortment of emotions. You see, my father and mother—Richard and Kathrine Knight—lived on the University of Illinois campus while attending college. I was born in my father’s first year of college, 2nd semester to be exact. My life began in a lower level apartment on Green Street, right down from the exact street (Green Street) where Roger Ebert grew up. Sadly, my father passed away this past August (2016), preceded by my mother in 2011. I have fond memories of the University of Illinois campus as I’ve visited there on several occasions over the years. Although I was excited about attending the festival for the second time, I was also unexpectedly saddened by my father’s loss, yet comforted by the surroundings where we all began as a family. Needless to say, the U. of IL campus will always be close to my heart.
Opening night festivities, Wednesday April 19, began with Chaz Ebert, the festival co-founder, executive producer, and host, welcoming guests and explaining the cornerstone of the festival. She informed the audience by stating, “Roger felt that movies could help us gain empathy for people or a situation; therefore, this year, Ebertfest 2017 will be dedicated to not only empathy, but also kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.”
She continued by saying, “Roger loved singing and dancing, and so I asked Jimmy Demers to sing ‘God Bless America.’”
Concluding the welcome, Chaz thanked festival participants with a heartfelt message. “After nineteen years, you have welcomed me into this community, and I thank you for that.”
Hair (1978), a musical, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It was chosen to open the festival with a 35mm new print on loan from Michael Moore and the UCLA Film Archive. Hair’s producer, Michael Butler, and Michael Hausmen, the first assistant director, were onstage with Michael Phillips (film critic for the Chicago Tribune), who facilitated a Q&A after the film screened.
Hausmen and Butler reminisced about the filming and answered festivalgoers’ questions. Hair’s New York City park scenes were the most challenging to film, as the appearance of 10 inches of snow was unexpected. And, if you ever wondered why most of hippies looked so real, that’s because they were the “real deal.” No costuming needed, they simply looked in their personal closets for wardrobe.
Thursday, April 20, the day started with panel discussions held at the Hyatt Hotel, just a short walk from the Virginia Theater, where all the films screened. This format continued the next three days and culminated on Sunday, April 23, with the closing film, De-Lovely, with special guests director and producer Irwin Winkler, and Jimmy and Donnie Demers, a singer and pianist.
Regarding my experience attending the festival, it was one of pure joy, as the film’s selections covered a wide assortment of genres and topics. The exposure to distinctive filmmaking styles is of great importance not only to the general “film-loving” public, but also to film critics who are incessantly honing their craft and widening their film knowledge. Panel discussions are always high on my list, and those too presented assorted topics and participants. Lastly, I always find solace in merely discussing film with film lovers. Ebertfest provides a forum to discuss, learn, question, compare, express opinions, and laugh. Yes, laughter is key in my world, and there was plenty of that going on.
My favorite moments included viewing the film Pleasantville (1998) with the insanely busy director Gary Ross, who flew in straight from the set of Ocean’s Eight (2018). He said he loved seeing it in the historic theater and was thrilled to be in attendance for the Q&A. Pleasantville is on my list of “Top 10 All-Time Favorite Films” and I was in heaven watching it on the big screen. The film explores an assortment of issues that resonate in what’s happening in our world today, and in my mind, is truly a masterpiece.
Meeting the exceptionally talented and lovely French film star Isabelle Huppert of Elle (2016) after the screening was thrilling. Viewing the comedic film Hysteria (2011) with a packed house—1,525 people, to be exact—was fantastic; yep, here’s the laughter element. The film’s star, Hugh Dancy’s, Q&A was delightful as well as his participation during a panel. Hearing Tanya Wexler, the film’s director’s, views surrounding the film was insightful. Sheila O’Malley’s short film July and Half of August, about defining a couple’s relationship that falls in a gray area, and hearing her process in making the film during the Q&A was refreshing.
To Sleep with Anger, (1990) with a post Q&A with director Charles Burnett and special guest Robert Townsend brought us back to family issues and is timely. The documentary Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw, with a post-Q&A with the director by Rick Goldsmith, gave us an insightful view of mental illness in a high profile athlete. Variete, a 1925 silent film directed by Ewald Andre Dupont, with live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, was unique. They Call Us Monsters (2016), gives a voice to juveniles who are tried as adults, with Ben Lear, director, and Sasha Alpert, producer. Q&A provided further information about the cast and this issue.
Continuing Roger’s film legacy, Chaz Ebert has initiated a valuable program for high school and college-age students, as well as beginning professionals, titled “Ebert Fellows.” Ebert Fellows are emerging writers, film and art critics, filmmakers, and technologists. An Ebert program connected to Sundance, Telluride, Hawaii, Columbia College Journalism Links, the Chicago Urban League, or the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign mentors the group. It was great to meet and interact with all 24 that attended Ebertfest2017; a common characteristic they all displayed was their passion and drive towards film.
Clearly excellent films, Q&A’s with talent and interesting panel discussions are offered. The schedule does allow for plenty of social interactions during the breaks. In full disclosure, I wasn’t able to attend Wednesday and Saturday, either evening, or Sunday morning, due to conflicts. I look forward to next year’s Ebertfest by attending the entire four days, as this gives the complete experience that I’ve experienced in the past. Next year is the 20th Anniversary, April 18-22, 2018, and I’m sure the program schedule will be exceptional.
For further information about the films, panels, and Ebert Fellows of Ebertfest2017, please read the comprehensive article written by Chaz Ebert and Matt Fagerholm.
*Author’s notes and connections with Roger Ebert.
Starting as a fan of Roger Ebert during the 70s, I was an avid reader of his film review column in the Sun-Times and enjoyed viewing his TV show At the Movies in 1982. During my years of teaching gifted literature, I wrote an interactive book review lesson in which my students enjoyed critiquing books by debating in the “Ebert and Siskel” format; of course, their favorite part was sporting the thumbs up or thumbs down at the conclusion.
I wrote to Roger in 2007 about my concern of the emergence of “horror teen torture porn” films. He thoroughly answered my questions in his Sun-Times column and added my concerns in quotes in his book, Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2009 on page 865.
As my love for film as an art form grew, after leaving teaching, writing film critiques was a natural progression. In 2008, I began writing reviews and, in 2009, was accepted into the Chicago Film Critics Association, of which Roger was a member.
Lastly, in 2011, when Roger’s book, Life Itself, premiered, I interviewed Roger via email for my press outlet, at the time TribLocal, a subsidiary of the Chicago Tribune, and yes, it is one of the highlights of my life.
**This article is dedicated to my father, Richard Curtis Knight who loved movies and who also read Roger’s column as well as watched his TV Film Shows. This photo was taken on his birthday August 31, 2012, Roger personalized and signed his birthday copy of Life Itself.
Sarah Knight Adamson© May 2, 2017