Annual event makes home for orphan films

He may be known as one of the last of the commercially influential critics, but over his 40-year career, Roger Ebert has quietly evolved into another role: the champion of the little-known filmmaker.

From his home in Chicago — and, for the last 14 months, from various hospitals and rehab centers around the country — he has plugged movies and directors he deems worthy even when the vast majority of auds (and other crix) disagree.

At his Overlooked Film Festival in April, he has spent the last nine years bringing in helmers as diverse as Werner Herzog and Paul Cox for a spirited discussion with thousands of fans.

Ebert programs the event, which unfolds in the college town of Champaign-Urbana, as a celebration of both underappreciated Hollywood pics and indie gems, taking care to highlight films others have dismissed. For example, screening Joey Lauren Adams’ directorial debut was just the latest choice in which Ebert flouted conventional wisdom so he could promote a filmmaker he felt needed a boost.

He also brought in Ousmane Sembene to screen his Senegalese drama “Moolaade,” just six weeks before the director died.

This year, even with Ebert’s own attendance uncertain, a thousand tickets sold in the first weekend. What’s most remarkable is that the consumers, as they do every year, bought tickets without even knowing what films would be shown.

“You have all these people who put their total trust in him. Who else in the movie business can you say that about?” says assistant festival director Mary Susan Britt.

While Ebert is best known for his syndicated show and column, which review primarily contemporary movies (indeed, Hollywood studios are known to court his affection by bringing the latest blockbuster to his Chicago screening room), he engages in a number of activities that have an impact on smaller films.

The first is recording commentary tracks for DVDs, usually reserved for directors and cast, in which he shares his thoughts on such films as “Dark City” and “Citizen Kane.”

The second is hosting the annual “Cinema Interruptus” symposium at the U. of Colorado-Boulder’s Conference on World Affairs, where he and an auditorium of college students analyze a film shot-by-shot, routinely pausing the movies to discuss and discover their secrets.

Asked at the time of the fest what most upsets him about auds’ relationship with films, he gives an answer befitting a cineaste professor more than the country’s best-known reviewer. Auds, he said, settle for easily available mediocrity instead of seeking out quality in less obvious places.

“Will people ever tire of the junk — will they develop a hunger for good films?” he asked. “It’s two hours of their lives, forever gone.”

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