The 20th annual Roger Ebert Film Festival (Ebertfest), began on April 18 and ended on April 22, 2018, at the Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois. Film-goers were treated to a spotlighted celebration of past years while garnering a pulse on the current filmmaking climate.
Receiving an invitation to attend the festival, as a panel member is a gratifying experience as sharing film knowledge while gaining knowledge from panel members and audience members is always a win-win. Chaz Ebert director of the festival, assembled a large cadre of critics from around the country for our panel entitled, “Critical Mass: The Future of Film Criticism,” sponsored by Rotten Tomatoes, and moderated by Claudia Puig. The panel included: Sarah Knight Adamson, Nick Allen, Matt Fagerholm, Sam Fragoso, Leonard Maltin, Scott Mantz, Nell Minow, Sheila O’Malley, Michael Phillips, Eric Pierson, Claudia Puig, Carrie Rickey, Richard Roeper, Matt Zoller Seitz, Peter Sobczynski, Brian Tallerico, ReBecca Theodore-Vachon and Susan Wloszczyna.
I must admit an invitation to serve on the critic panel with my esteemed colleagues was quite a personal and professional honor. In researching the many different areas that touched on the topic of film criticism, I found the lack of diversity among critics and the glaring low percentage of female critics to be relevant talking points.
Chaz Ebert introduced the panel by stating; “I like to be inclusive so I invited as many of the critical talent that the stage would hold.” Next, she introduced the moderator Claudia Puig, the President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the past critic for USA Today and the Programmer for the Mendocino Film Festival. Puig began by stating, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many film critics assembled in one place before other than at a film screening.”
Puig’s first question touched on the wide disparity of male critics vs. female critics. Critics agree that uneven critic gender is not representative of the gender population that attends films—thus creating an underrepresented skewed view. Female critic voices do need to be heard, as films need equality in representation.
The pros and cons of Netflix included the worldwide audience on a smaller screen, yet, the secretive numbers of viewers, (the statistics are unknown; primarily, two people or two million could have viewed the movie, these numbers are vital. The superb Netflix film “Mudbound” drew critics’ praise as the cinematography, (by a female) is breathtaking. It earned four Oscar nominations: Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song for Blige and Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography, the Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography, the latter of which crowned Rachel Morrison the first woman ever nominated in the category. Blige became the first person ever to be nominated for an acting and song award during the same year.
So what is the worst and best part of our job? A few answers to the worst part of a critics job included: the reduction of time in radio segments, a frustrating point due to the challenge of covering all of the important aspects of a film; the overwhelming volume of movies that are now being produced, coupled with the desire to view everything; ‘self-proclaimed’ critics are reviewing movies based on trailers or minute details that don’t reflect filmmaking skills, the underwhelming opportunities for paid criticism; and having to see many bad movies.
The best part about being a film critic is the feeling of enormous pride, satisfaction, and happiness in each of the members. For instance, Roger Ebert has said a good day for him included viewing three films, for myself, a good day is seeing at least one if not two. Also, for me educating people in general as to the qualities of seeing the film as an art form is important and speaking to those higher-level creative thinking skills in my reviews are key. In addition, due to having a child development college background, I feel as I’m a ‘watch-dog’ so to speak and advocate for children’s movies, in that filmmakers will present adult narratives and adult situations. I have no qualms in calling out a popular film on these points.
After a lively hour-long conversation, the panel moved to audience questions. Discussions on how to be paid as a critic; what makes an effective critic; is it important how a story is told, (“A Quiet Place” was used as an example of the outstanding way in which it was told), how do you approach an independent small-budget film that you really thought was great, (you champion that film by continuing to write about it and promote it on social media); should the Amazon and Netflix movies be eligible for the Academy Awards, overwhelming response was, yes they should; is the streaming way of viewing film going to become the norm, Brian Tallerico, in paraphrasing his answer said, “The distraction of digital viewing does change the way we view art, although it is here to stay and the way of the future.”
Other events included, a welcome at the University of Illinois President’s resident home, the opening night film “The Fugitive” (1993), the Chicago based Oscar-winner played to a packed house with director Andy Davis in attendance; he joined Richard Roeper, Matt Zoller Seitz and Scott Mantz for a Q&A.
The 2016 documentary, “Disturbing the Peace,” was the first recipient of the Ebert Humanitarian Award. Director Stephen Apkon and co-producer Marcina Hale returned to the festival to discuss how their film has been shown around the world and embraced by both Israelis and Palestinians.
The 70mm screening of Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi film “Interstellar” was followed by a conversation with famed astrophysicist Miguel Alcubierre and University of Illinois alum astrophysicist Brand Fortner. Chaz Ebert moderated the post-screening discussion along with Brian Tallerico and Scott Mantz.
“Selena” (1997) director Gregory Nava screened his personal print, Claudia Puig and Monica Castillo followed with the discussion. Joining Nava at the festival was his wife and the assistant director of “Selena” Barbara Martinez Jitner.
The second panel, “Leveling the Playing Field: Hollywood in the Time of #MeToo and #TimesUp” featured Gregory Nava, Ruth Ann Harnisch, Robert Pulcini, Julie Dash, Shari Springer Berman, Kogonada, Darrien Gipson, Andrew Miano and Jeff “The Dude” Dowd; Carrie Rickey led the panel.
Rebecca Theodore-Vachon and conducted a Q&A session with filmmaker Amma Asante about her lovely 2013 film, “Belle.”
“The Alliance of Inclusion and Respect Panel: Challenging Stigma Through the Arts” featuring Barb Bressner, Barry Allen, Julie Dash, Richard Leskosky, Joseph Omo-Osagie, Todd Rendleman, and Karen Simms; Dr. Eric Pierson led the panel.
“Columbus” was shown and afterward a Q&A with director Kogonada was joined onstage by producers Andrew Miano, Danielle Renfrew, Behrens, and Bill & Ruth Ann Harnisch. Nate Kohn and Matt Fagerholm led the discussion.
Alloy Orchestra members Terry Donahue, Roger Miller, and Ken Winokur performed their original score for Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 classic, “Page of Madness.”
The festival’s twentieth anniversary continued with a street party celebration in the plaza outside of the Virginia Theater, complete with cake, ice cream, live music by Bruiser and the Virtues and dancing in the street, along with a pair of costumed dinosaurs. Chaz Ebert was presented with a beautiful bouquet of roses.
Ava DuVernay received one of the longest ovations in Ebertfest history after a screening of her 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary, “13.” She spoke onstage with Chaz Ebert and Peabody Award-winning director Rita Coburn-Whack of “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.”
Julie Dash, the “Queen Mother” of cinema (according to DuVernay), spoke about her 1991 masterpiece,” Daughters of the Dust.” with Chaz Ebert, Sam Fragoso, and Sheila O’Malley. A beautiful, calm film that transcends time.
Martha Coolidge’s 1991 film, “Rambling Rose,” received an enthusiastic response from festivalgoers. Both Martha Coolidge and Julie Dash were congratulated for blazing a path for women directors over 25 years ago. She reminisced about the production with Michael Phillips and Susan Wloszczyna.
Jeff Dowd, the real-life inspiration for Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (played by Jeff Bridges) came to Ebertfest and danced down the aisle as he was introduced. Dowd spoke onstage with Nate Kohn, Peter Sobczynski, and Chaz Ebert following the 20th-anniversary screening of Joel & Ethan Coen’s cult sensation, “The Big Lebowski.” A comical moment occurred when Chaz asked “The Dude,” to please answer the question, as he does tend to ramble, and ramble.” On a side note, I talked with Jeff Dowd later that evening during a festival party, and told him I was going to be watching the movie, “The Big Lebowski” with my adult children next week while on a family vacation in California. When I asked him to answer a question about the movie, he replied, “How about you just call me when you’ve finished watching the movie, and I can talk to everyone since we’ll be in the same time zone,” yep I can now say my family has Skyped with the Dude!
On the closing day the screening “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” received a warm welcome. Both Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana were in attendance for their prize-winning documentary. The film showcases the contributions of Native Americans to rock, jazz, gospel, and heavy metal music. Maiorana and Pura Fé, one of the indigenous singers featured in the film, and renowned pianist George Lepauw a special guest gathered onstage for a Q&A with Rita Coburn-Whack, the CEO of the International Beethoven Project. Pura Fé, an indigenous solo artist who appears in the film, brought her songs to the Virginia Theatre, treating the audience to a concert–the singer-songwriter’s technique of recording her voice and then harmonizing with it, layering track upon track.
Ebertfest is a celebration of film, a meeting of film lovers and a fantastic place to further your knowledge about cinema. I strongly suggest you try and attend as it’s unique in the that the film festival’s programming offers a wide variety.
Sarah Knight Adamson©April 28, 2018