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Can Ebertfest Survive Without Roger Ebert? This Year, An Answer

Can Ebertfest Survive Without Roger Ebert? This Year, An Answer

If last year’s Ebertfest was a memorial to the late great Roger Ebert, this year was a rebirth of sorts.

While the festival must now exist without its namesake, what transpired April 23 – 27 suggests that there will be many more Ebertfests to come. Held at the 90-year-old Virginia Theater in Champaign-Urbana, the festival – formerly titled Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival – continued to do what it has done for the past 15 years: celebrate transcendent cinema, both old and new.

As the festival director since its inception in 1998, Nate Kohn believes Ebertfest “fills its own niche.” There is no submission process to get a film into Ebertfest; they choose you. There are no publicists. There are no films being bought and sold. There are no studio executives walking out of a movie 15 minutes after it has started. There are no people on their phones during the feature presentation. Ebertfest eschews the pettiness and politics that inhabit many film festival environments around the world.

So what does Ebertfest contain? A theater that blows every AMC or Regal Cineplex out of the water. With a 56-foot screen, an organist and a projectionist whose name is James Bond (no, I’m not kidding), this recently restored movie palace is every voracious moviegoer’s wet dream. Aside from the presentation (a mix of digital and 70mm prints), it’s the films themselves that make Ebertfest a uniquely special experience. Like every other year in the festival’s rich history, 2014 contained an eclectic batch of pictures.

The festival opened with “Life Itself,” Steve James’ extraordinary, warts-and-all account of the festival’s creator, setting the tone for what was to follow. Yes, Roger is no longer planted in that brown, rugged chair located at the back of the Virginia. But his presence is felt in the frame of every movie shown at Ebertfest. Even more so than in the past, attendees echoed the sense that Ebert was speaking to us through these pictures – all of which he passionately championed.

This was especially true with “A Simple Life” and “Goodbye Solo,” a pair of undervalued gems that deal with the process of death in two entirely different ways. The former film, helmed by vaunted female filmmaker Ann Hui, presents a touching relationship between a man and his ill maid as they grapple with mortality. The latter, written and directed by Ebertfest favorite Ramin Bahrani, delivers an unlikely friendship between a cab driver and a laconic curmudgeon passenger. Bahrani and Hui both explore the inevitability of death in a manner akin to the way Roger often wrote about it: with comedy, honesty, wisdom, compassion, and insight. “I know it is coming, and I do not fear it,” Ebert said in his devastatingly beautiful piece “Go Gentle into that Night.” It is that philosophy that seemed to be the guiding principle in a handful of the movies shown this year. 

Less morbid and more politically charged, a pair of classics celebrated their 25th anniversaries: “Do the Right Thing” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” Both cinematic titans Spike Lee and Oliver Stone were in attendance to present and talk about their landmark achievements. It came as no surprise that both films have stood the test of time – especially Lee’s magnum opus, a film whose piercing examination of racism seems ever fresh with the recent incendiary comments by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

Other festival highlights included the unveiling of the Roger Ebert statue; an uproarious Q&A with Patton Oswalt after a screening of Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult”; Bill Knack, Ebert’s colleague at the Daily Illinois back in college, reciting the final page of “The Great Gatsby”; a wonderfully grainy print of Bennett Miller’s exquisite “Capote” in honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman; a showing of the silent film “He Who Gets Slapped” accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra; and provocative panels ranging from “The State and Future of Independent Film” to “Remembering Roger Ebert.”

The latter discussion, which consisted of RogerEbert.com contributors and far-flung correspondents sharing personal stories about their unique relationship with Roger, took center-stage Friday morning. This prompted a Q&A that felt more like a wake. One by one, Ebertfest attendees went up to the mic and talked about the impact Roger had on their lives. One woman shared an anecdote about nearly dying from her addiction to alcohol until Ebert saved her. The abundance of similarly heartbreaking and inspiring tales was astonishing to hear. It was a touching experience that can’t be duplicated.

But it does prompt the question: Where does Ebertfest go from here? When asked, Kohn said that they will deliver “more of the same,” noting “We sort of lucked into a formula that was pretty successful from the very beginning.” Surely Ebertfest can’t solely exist as a living memorial to Roger. However, if 2014 is any indication, it seems like the festival will continue to be a healthy confluence of reverence for the critic’s impact along with overlooked modern gems, rare prints of classics and special selections from Ebert’s Great Movies collection.

As in years past since Ebert’s loss of speech, Chaz Ebert was directing the festivities this past weekend. Sporting enough enough wit, kindness and charm to fill a theater, Chaz has repeatedly proven to be an entertaining and thoughtful emcee. Her dedication to preserving her husband’s festival is inspiring, and her love for others even more so. Throughout the festival she would consistently go “off-script” to share an anecdote about Roger, a certain film, filmmaker or a random event from her life. At any other festival people would consider these asides as annoyances delaying them from seeing a movie. But not at Ebertfest. Those who attend this festival come for the movies and stay for the conversation.

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