The late Roger Ebert often told this story about himself: During an Ebertfest screening of “Citizen Kane,” featuring commentary he had recorded for a Criterion Collection laser disc, he went for popcorn and asked a patron what she thought of the movie.
“I like it a lot,” she replied. “But I wish that guy would stop talking.”
The voice of America’s most famous and influential cinema maven has been stilled since 2013. Yet his words and spirit continue to permeate the film festival he founded, with wife Chaz and scholar Nate Kohn, at his beloved U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
“I make sure that Roger is incorporated into the festival,” now in its 18th year, Chaz Ebert says.
On post-festival drives back from Champaign, she took notes as he held forth on future programming ideas. “We could run the festival for another 10 years” on the notebooks she preserved, she says.
“We also look for films where we have a video review by either Siskel and Ebert, or Ebert and Roeper,” referring to the critic’s long-time TV partners.
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Attendees at this year’s edition of the fest and director Kasi Lemmons will thereby revisit his enthusiasm for his 1997 top pic, “Eve’s Bayou.”
Ebertfest is officially no longer an Overlooked Film Festival; that moniker was jettisoned when directors objected to their films being called “overlooked.” Still, movies deserving of a second look remain central to its mission.
Screening will be 35mm prints of Michael Polish’s 2003 “Northfork” (which Ebert compared favorably to “Wings of Desire”) and Brian de Palma’s 1981 “Blow Out,” which will be followed by a Q&A with star Nancy Allen. For the silent cinema celebration, the 15 African-American members of Renee Baker’s Chicago Modern Orchestra Project will accompany Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 “Body and Soul,” featuring Paul Robeson’s screen debut. Complementing the 4K digitally restored “The Third Man,” one of Ebert’s personal top 10, will be an appearance by script supervisor Angela Allen. She “remembers absolutely everything,” according to fest director Nate Kohn.
Panel discussions reflect a passion for cinema reflecting positively on the human condition. “Movies are a giant empathy machine,” Ebert often averred, and a filmmakers’ round table will consider the topic “Creating Empathy on the Big Screen.”
But nothing bears the Pulitzer-winning scribe’s imprint more than Chaz’s proudest 2016 innovation, the first Ebert Humanitarian Award. The honor goes to a film that “helps us reshape our world and make social progress.” The inaugural recipient, Stephen Apkon’s documentary “Disturbing the Peace,” concerns the nonviolent peace activism of a group of Israeli military and Palestinian fighters.
Though Chaz Ebert is developing her own projects, she sees Ebertfest as a means of continued collaboration with a rare soul.
“Not only did I love him so much, I think he was one of the finest human beings I ever met. Such a good man, with such a good heart, and so brilliant. What he brought to this world as a person — not just as a film critic — left it a little bit better.”\
What: 18th annual Ebertfest
When: April 13-17
Where: Virginia Theater, Champaign, Ill.