There are many film festivals, but only one Ebertfest. Where most film festivals look forward in search of the next big indie hit, Ebertfest looks back — sometimes to the recent past, sometimes deeper into cinema history — in order to spotlight films that are worthy of further consideration. There are no distribution deals brokered at Ebertfest, no press junkets or red carpets. Just movies.
Those movies are selected, of course, by Roger Ebert, the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times for over 45 years and co-host of the variously titled iterations of “At the Movies.” His eclectic and intriguing programing slate for this year’s fourteenth annual Ebertfest, which kicks off tonight at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, runs the gamut from innovative films of the silent era to cult classics like “Joe Versus the Volcano.” Last week, Ebert was kind enough to answer a few questions about his one-of-a-kind festival via email.
What sparked the creation of the first festival?
A few years earlier, to commemorate the birthday of HAL 9000 (who says he was born in Urbana), the university held Cyberfest, a mixture of scientific and popular events. It included a 70mm showing of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and a discussion with Arthur C. Clarke via videocam from Sri Lanka. That was such a success that the College of Media decided to spin it off into an annual festival.
Ebertfest was originally called “The Overlooked Film Festival” — has it changed in any significant ways along with the name or is it essentially the same festival it’s always been?
Yes, to spotlight films hadn’t received the attention they deserved. That made it easier for me, because I wasn’t risking conflict of interest by getting involved in films that were currently being sold. No business is done at the festival. The name was changed because some filmmakers were understandably reluctant to have their work categorized as “Overlooked.”
Do you wait to see how a film is received before you consider programming it? Or are you thinking about whether you can get something like “Take Shelter” the first time you’re watching it at a press screening?
Every film I see is a potential candidate. “Take Shelter” has had a good deal of success, but nothing like the size of audience it deserves. Another motive in selecting some films is that they may have had great exposure in urban centers and art theaters, yet remain essentially unseen in downstate Illinois and countless similar areas.
Unlike other festivals, there’s no “business” or “acquisitions” at Ebertfest. Have you ever considered expanding the lineup to include world premieres?
No. Nor have we been offered any! Some films receive their first public screenings, but I don’t think that’s what you have in mind.
One of the more interesting events on this year’s schedule is a screening of ‘Citizen Kane’ with your audio commentary, which got me wondering: what is your favorite audio commentary?
Scorsese consistently does amazing work. The reason I’m showing “Kane” with my commentary is that the 70th anniversary restoration has been released on Blu-ray, and it was an excuse for my voice to be heard in the Virginia for the first time since 2006.
Assume someone is coming to Ebertfest for the first time. What’s the one thing they must do or see away from the Virginia Theatre in Champaign-Urbana?
The great presence in the town is the University of Illinois, one of the great universities. I love the library’s Reading Room. Depending on your field of interest, there are countless things to be seen. One of the major new additions is the National Center for Supercomputer Applications, which oversees a large new IT campus. Under construction is the fastest supercomputer ever built.
I’m sure in 13 years there are a lot of highlights, but is there one favorite Ebertfest moment that jumps immediately to mind?
The first film on the first day. It was Rolf de Heer’s “Dance Me to My Song,” starring Heather Rose as a cerebral palsy sufferer who wants to fire her crooked caregiver and get laid, and achieves both goals. Heather came in person all the way from Australia, communicating with a computer voice (I had no idea how prophetic that would be in my case). She was a great spirit, and after the onstage Q&A she typed out “Now let’s all go out and get pissed!” There was also an anniversary tribute to “Singin’ in the Rain,” and Donald O’Connor appeared and regaled the audience. As he came onstage at the Virginia, he said: “Hey! I danced on this stage in vaudeville!” It was to be his last public appearance.
Ebertfest 2012 runs from April 25th to the 29th.