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Engaging With Film At Ebertfest

Engaging With Film At Ebertfest

         I love
attending film festivals away from home, so I can immerse myself completely. I
think I know, by now, what makes for a successful one: a good location,
interesting films, equally interesting guests, and an engaged audience. Roger
Ebert’s Film Festival, now in its 18th year (and familiarly known as Ebertfest)
has all of that and more. The beautifully restored 1,500 seat Virginia Theatre
in Champaign, Illinois, which Roger attended as a boy, is an ideal venue. The
famed film critic’s wife and partner Chaz is a warm and gracious host. Her
guests are filmmakers who had some relationship with Roger or represent the
kind of people he would have supported. And the audience is terrific:
intelligent, friendly, open-minded people who travel from far and wide,
confident that Chaz and festival director Nate Kohn will offer them a program
that’s worth their while.


Because I teach in Los Angeles on Thursday night, my wife
and I regretfully miss out on the first few days of programming. This year, we
didn’t get to see one of our favorite people, director Guillermo del Toro (who
screened Crimson Peak), as well as Paul
Weitz (Grandma), Stephen Apkon and
Andrew Young’s buzzed-about documentary Disturbing
the Peace
, and the Alloy Orchestra accompanying the 1924 French silent film L’Inhumaine, not to mention a revival
of Kasi Lemmon’s Eve’s Bayou. Fortunately,
I had conducted an interview with Angela Allen, John Huston’s longtime script
supervisor, at the TCM Classic Film Festival several years ago. She appeared
with a screening of The Third Man, on
which she worked when she was just starting out. Angela seemed fresh as a daisy
after flying in from London, while Alice and I were bedraggled after a day of
travel from Los Angeles!

We made up for
lost time on Saturday with a trio of moviegoing experiences we won’t soon
forget. First, Australian-based writer-director Paul Cox presented the premiere
showing of his highly personal feature The
Force of Destiny
. I’ve long admired Cox’s work, going back to Innocence and A Woman’s Tale, but this picture is special because it is rooted
in his recent experience with cancer–and finding a life partner for the first
time (before that, he says, “I was too busy making movies”). Imagine
being told you have six months to live, and then making a film about it! The
talented David Wenham stars as a sculptor who is forced to confront his own
mortality and reassess his relationships—with his daughter, ex-wife, and a
young Indian woman who comes into his life.
As good as the film is, the lasting gift I take with me is
Cox’s incredibly moving introduction. He has generously permitted me to reprint
it below. If you prefer, you can watch him deliver these words on the Ebertfest
live-stream video that now appears on YouTube

The next selection was a documentary called Radical Grace, which has already won
notice at other festival showings, and deservedly so. The subject is a network
of American nuns who feel that their mandate is to help people in need, be they
sick, poor, disenfranchised, or in need of guidance and direction. One of the
sisters teaches classes so ex-prisoners can obtain their GED. For their efforts
they were officially censured by the Vatican (before Pope Francis came along)
and chastised by the American archdiocese. This raises the issue of women’s
roles in the Catholic Church, and the little-known history of their influence
in the early centuries following Jesus’ demise. What a compelling and
provocative film this is, told (as so many good stories are) by focusing on a
handful of charismatic and committed individuals. Director Rebecca Parrish, producer
Nicole Bernardi-Reis, composer Heather McIntosh, and Chaz Ebert’s longtime
friend, the outspoken Father Michael Pfleger of Chicago joined Chaz for a post-screening
discussion. You can find it HERE.


That night, I had the pleasure of interviewing actress Nancy
Allen following a screening (in 35mm) of the 1981 thriller Blow Out, which was written and directed by her then-husband, Brian
De Palma. It was fun to revisit this picture, which I hadn’t seen since it was
new. I’m still not crazy about the ending, which I find incredulous even for
the genre, but it holds up very well on almost every other count–including
John Travolta’s performance, the expert use of Philadelphia locations, and the
premise itself, inspired in part by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup. (In the Italian film, the
central mystery lies in a photograph while here it’s a sound recording.) Like
so many movies of the period, it reminds us how much has changed in the past
few decades: not only is it a pre-cell phone piece, but it’s a celebration of
analog technologies like tape recorders, 16mm film, and pay telephones.
Allen proved to be a good guest who shared vivid memories of
making the film, working with her husband (whom she met when she costarred in Carrie), shooting on practical
locations, figuring out her “dumb bunny” character and creating her
look with costume designer Ann Roth. I also asked her about working with Steven
Spielberg on 1941, Robert Zemeckis on
I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and Paul
Verhoeven in Robocop, which offered
her one of her juiciest roles as patrolman Peter Weller’s partner. (It turns
out her father was a New York City cop.) The only mistake she made was
referring to the film as being 25 years old: it’s actually 35, though you
wouldn’t know it to look at Allen, who was the object of many a crush during
her movie heyday. You can watch our conversation HERE.

Nancy’s time these days is taken up with an organization
called WeSpark, founded by her friend and
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
costar, the late Wendie Jo Sperber. (Alice and I got
to know Wendie because our daughter attended school with her son, and we
participated in her charity’s earliest fundraisers.) WeSpark offers support and
counseling to people suffering with cancer and–just as important–their
children and families. You can learn more HERE.

The festival
finale was a screening of Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 silent drama Body and Soul, starring the imposing
Paul Robeson, accompanied by an unconventional, free-jazz score played by the
Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, composed and conducted by Renée Baker. It
took some getting used to for me, but once I got involved with the film itself
I found the modern, often-discordant music surprisingly suitable. I have a
feeling the surviving print, though in great condition, is missing some crucial
footage and hope a longer version may emerge. I was happy to share the stage
with the composer and Chaz Ebert for a discussion, which prompted some
excellent questions from the audience. If you’re curious about Baker’s work,
and the other films she is scoring, click HERE

is the only gathering I know that is centered around the life and work of an
individual… but Roger Ebert was no ordinary critic. He was as inspired as he
was eloquent, and his passion lives on in this remarkable festival, championed
by his singular wife Chaz. I feel very fortunate to have attended.

*  *  *


 Thank you for
sharing Force of Destiny with us. This film would not exist without the
generosity of heart and spirit from my transplant donor. Thank you anonymous
donor. Thank you! 
six years ago I was diagnosed with cancer of the liver – after a long wait and
much despair, I received transplant of the liver. It changed my life
considerably. The priorities of the world I lived in seemed so terribly wrong,
so terribly out of place and out of tune with the reality I felt within. Then a
young man I’d met in pre-transplant classes died because a liver couldn’t be
found in time. I realized how terribly lucky I’d been receiving a transplant in
time and I almost felt guilty for the loss of this life.

Then I found
myself writing the screenplay of Force of Destiny, although I never thought I
would make another film and had been advised to “take it very easy.”

It was the only
way of returning the kindness and care I’d received from the doctors, hospital
staff and caring friends and family. This film is not the story of my demise
and resurrection. I call it a “spacial love story” and of course it’s laced
with a few personal experiences. Indeed, life is not just for the living but
what you do with it.

Hopefully Force
of Destiny won’t send you home with an empty heart, and hopefully the film will
enrich your life instead of pandering to the lower instincts. The proof of your
lives is the love we leave behind and life must be an act of love whatever the
consequences. Auden said “We must love one another or die” and the Polish poet
Herbert said, “We must love others, soon it might be too late.”

It’s a great
honor to premiere this film here in America at Roger’s Festival.

When Roger heard
that I was ill, he wrote the most tender and loving letter of solidarity that
I’ve ever received. Chaz and I were surprised and deeply touched.

A few weeks ago I
heard that so called soldiers or fighters had shot fleeing children in the back
because they’d thrown stones at men in uniform. A mother with her dead son in
her arms begged the men to kill her. She begged those thugs and her God to let
her die with her child. Poor mother… poor child… poor humanity.

I felt so ashamed
to belong to the human race. Every day the very foundations of our civilization are being mutilated and destroyed. We have to take back the power from the forces
of darkness.

We cannot live in
a world without a conscience. That mother begging to be killed with her child
made me want to make another film. A film dealing with this world with this
present darkness. I can’t wait for years to get this fund and I don’t have the
luxury of time. So if you have any spare coins in your pocket, please let me

I very
much hope you appreciate and enjoy Force of Destiny. It’s a film about love and
beauty. The only things that matter in this life.  

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