The Ebert name is starting to move in new directions, but after 20 years, Ebertfest remains largely the same. Roger Ebert’s annual film festival, held in his hometown of Champaign, Illinois, threw a cake-and-ice-cream party for its anniversary edition but otherwise stuck to programming a familiar mix of fare the beloved film critic championed during his life and newer work chosen for its similarities to films and themes he had embraced in the past. This year, the newer selections included “13th,” “Interstellar” and “Columbus,” while choices from the Ebert vault included “American Splendor,” “Rambling Rose” and opening-night selection “The Fugitive.”
Meanwhile, Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow and co-founder and chair of the Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, plans moves into film production and broader social action. She announced during the festival that she would be co-producing a biopic of Sojourner Truth, to be helmed by Lateef “Cal” Calloway, who previously wrote and directed a 2015 documentary short on Truth. Ebert also orchestrated a city-wide “Day4Empathy” event in Chicago on April 4, the fifth anniversary of Roger’s death.
And festival director Nate Kohn is in production on a new, untitled documentary about Ebert that will mine extensive archival footage from his reviews, in collaboration with Champaign-based production house Shatterglass Studios.
But these new projects haven’t yet altered the fabric of the festival, which, since Ebert’s death in 2013, has placed itself in a dual role: as a continuation of its original mission to gather an audience of highly devoted film fans for a weekend in Champaign, and as a living memory to his work as a critic.
“Over 20 years, we still have the same mission of bringing people together under the best possible conditions to watch good cinema,” Chaz told IndieWire at the festival’s closing night party on Saturday, April 21. “I want to see it continue to grow and evolve in a way that shows progress.”
Chaz and Kohn were drained; they’d just had to moderate a marathon Q&A session with infamous movie publicist Jeff Dowd, who was theoretically on hand to discuss a screening of “The Big Lebowski,” as he was the inspiration for “the Dude.” As he always does, though, Dowd wrested away control of the evening with his long, digressive anecdotes and wild philosophical tangents. The screening, the only festival event to have sold out prior to opening night, began at 9:30 p.m., but the Q&A didn’t let out until close to 1 a.m.
Dowd and the Dude drew the crowds, but Ebertfest’s larger goal this year was to spotlight women directors and filmmakers of color. Six of the visiting directors were women, three of them African-American. Ava DuVernay flew in for a morning to discuss her documentary “13th,” Amma Asante was on hand to discuss her 2013 hit “Belle” and Julie Dash gave a master class on her 1991 feature “Daughters of the Dust.” Chaz said she would like future festival editions “to be organically inclusive.”
Dash’s film could be seen as the best of both worlds of Ebertfest programming. Ebert had given the film a positive review during its initial run, and the screening opened with an “At the Movies” segment from 1992 in which he and Gene Siskel raved about the movie. But “Daughters” has also experienced a resurgence in popular culture thanks to a 2016 restoration from Cohen Media Group and its influence on Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” giving it a longer shelf life than its association to Ebert.
With each passing year, the festival will find it more difficult to strike a balance between what Chaz deemed “retro” selections — films Ebert had reviewed well while he was alive that haven’t had massive exposure to the public — and the newer films selected by Chaz and Kohn.
“I can see how there’s going to be a challenge to keep diving into his work to maintain the selections,” said Fred Koschmann, an editor on the new Ebert documentary who had covered Ebertfest while a graduate student at the University of Illinois. “But the right people are doing it. There’s still a deep well to return to.”
Though Ebert was often dismissive of television in his writing, RogerEbert.com has moved into TV coverage, and in the future the festival may, too. This year Chaz said Ebertfest had considered programming Errol Morris’s Netflix miniseries “Wormwood,” despite the uncertainty over whether it should be categorized as a film. “There’s no hard and fast rule against that,” she said.
For Chaz, it’s important to keep the festival moving forward. “We’re not stuck in a period of time,” she said. “We move, we make progress, we evolve. Even when Roger was alive we used to mix things up a little bit. And my tastes change. The world changes. So the festival will change in some way.”