At Ebertfest, guests celebrate the late critic and dance in the aisles
BY LAURA EMERICk Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org April 21, 2013 9:49PM
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CHAMPAIGN-URBANA — Roger was here, after all.
His presence was felt in every moment of his namesake event, Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, held in his hometown, and which concluded its 15th annual five-day run Sunday in his boyhood cinema, the Virginia Theatre.
The humanist spirit of the longtime Sun-Times film critic, who died April 4 at age 70, was reflected in the movies that he chose for this year’s event, from “Days of Heaven” (1978), Terrence Malick’s elegaic tale of innocence and loss, to “Not Yet Begun to Fight” (2012), a documentary about the redemptive powers of fly-fishing on the war wounded.
Chaz Ebert, his widow, and the festival’s co-host/producer, said onstage Thursday, “I can feel Roger’s spirit here. The Virginia is a like a temple for me.”
Furthermore, everyone had come to the Virginia “because of Roger”: the attendees, filmmakers (directors Richard Linklater, Joachim Trier, Patrick Wang, et al.); actors (Tilda Swinton, Shailene Woodley), industry leaders (Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics) and other invited guests (two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, to whom Ebert had dedicated this year’s festival).
Brazil-based Pablo Villaca, one of Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents (his specially selected roster of mostly foreign contributors to rogerebert.com), told the crowd Saturday, “I quit medical school for two reasons: the films of Martin Scorsese and the reviews of Roger Ebert. We are all here because of Roger. His ideas about life and his love of movies will live on forever. Roger, you are legion.”
In the introductions and post-screening sessions, others echoed these sentiments. “Ebertfest is a family that Roger created, and we are all a part of,” said film critic Kevin Lee. “It’s a family not of blood but of spirit and soul. It will continue for years to come.”
Amid the bittersweet reflections, there was plenty of joy and celebration. During the Q&A after Swinton’s “Julia” (2008), Chaz Ebert told the actress, “I wish we could have you dance onstage,” referring to a tradition that Swinton follows at a film festival in Scotland, where she lives.
The next morning, in what Swinton called “a spiritual service,” she led the crowd in a conga-line dance through the aisles to Barry White’s 1974 hit “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.”
“That’s why she’s one of our favorite festival guests,” Chaz Ebert said afterward. “There’s nothing better than having 1,500 people dancing along to Barry White.”
Ebertfest also made news this year with the only second public screening of “Escape From Tomorrow,” director Randy Moore’s black-and-white “fun-filled paranoia ride” shot surreptitiously at Disney World (and so unsanctioned, some suspect the film might never be released theatrically).
Another highlight was the Spanish silent film “Blancanieves” (2011), which Ebert first saw at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (and which opens Friday in Chicago). “After my film opened at Toronto, the first review was from Roger,” said “Blancanieves” writer-director Pablo Berger. “Can you imagine? I believe he’s here with us tonight. So this is for Roger.”
“Blancanieves,” which sets the Snow White fairy tale against a backdrop of bullfighting and other Spanish customs, was eight years in the making. After the film’s screening Saturday, Berger doffed his cap in the style of a matador removing his montera (hat), as he acknowledged the crowd’s standing ovation.
“I haven’t lost the joy of making films,” said Berger, who earlier mentioned that he agrees with Ebert’s attitude the movies “are a place to live out dreams.” “To be here tonight, in this theater, thanks to Roger — that’s going to keep me going for another eight years.”
Even without its founder, the festival will carry on, promise Chaz Ebert and the College of Media at the University of Illinois, the festival’s presenter. Festival director Nate Kohn, a professor at the University of Georgia, an Urbana native and U.I. alum, has helped to guide Ebertfest since its launch in 1999. He explained that Ebert would whittle down his list of candidates annually to 50 films or so, and “we have kept all those lists,” he said. “Roger will be programming this festival for years to come.”