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Chaz Ebert on 20th Anniversary of Ebertfest, Where Roger Was Like Beyonce (Guest Column)

Chaz Ebert
Victoria Will/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

When Roger was asked to start a film festival by Kim Rotzoll, the dean of the College of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, we had no idea it would exist 20 years later. The idea was to do a one-time festival as a follow up to the successful Cyberfest, the birthday party for Hal 9000, the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” who says in the movie that he was born in Urbana, Illinois. Roger had something in common with Hal 9000, he too was born in Urbana. And so Roger agreed to undertake the task. Besides, Roger was a proponent of the civilizing effect that watching movies communally could have. He said that movies are a giant machine that generates empathy, letting us know about the different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears of others and helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

So Roger set about organizing a festival that would show films at the Virginia Theatre, one he had attended as a child. It was an old movie palace in need of restoration, but still grand with a giant screen, a built in Wurlitzer organ that was estimated to cost $50,000 in 1921, and a Todd-AO color projection system embedded in the projection booth. Twenty years later it has indeed been nearly restored to it’s original splendor.

In searching for the films for that first festival, Roger said that one of the most melancholy of experiences is finding a film that you truly love and then discovering that most people had never heard of it. This was his mission, to introduce cinematic gems to an audience who had either not seen a film because it didn’t have distribution, or because it had been released, but, as Roger said, “in this dog-eat-dog world of instant box-office returns,” it had been yanked before finding the audience. And not only films, but genres or formats that had been neglected, like silent films and black-and-white films, and 70mm films, and foreign films. Roger had one important additional reason for this — as an active film critic he didn’t want to ask studios for films he may not have seen. He didn’t want to be beholden to them. And thus, Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival was born. A few years later we removed the word “overlooked” because some of the directors didn’t want to think of their films as overlooked. The festival became affectionately known as “Ebertfest.”

The 10 films that were shown at that inaugural festival were: “Dance Me to My Song,” “Thirteen,” “Household Saints,” “Battleship Potemkin,” “Maborosi,” “Surrender Dorothy,” “Shiloh,” “Hamsun,” “A Tale of Autumn,” and “Tron.” We dedicated that festival to Gene Siskel, who had been Roger’s television partner for 24 years, and who had passed away that February. The festival’s director, Nate Kohn, was also a native of Urbana and an alumnus of the University. During our post mortem of that first festival Roger said, “Francois Truffaut is right, the most beautiful sight in a movie theater is the light from the screen as it is reflected from the upturned faces of the audience.” And so Roger was hooked. The festival that was thought of as one-time thing, he declared “a tradition” and on the ride back home we were planning the next one. And after that the next and the next.

To attend Ebertfest with Roger was akin to walking into a stadium with Beyonce or The Beatles. He would be embarrassed that I am saying this, but it is true. The energy he brought into the room with him was electric and infectious. You could feel the thrill running through the audience as they smiled and clapped and welcomed him back year after year. They knew his enthusiasm and passion for the festival, and for them was authentic and they responded in kind. To watch Roger on stage introducing the films or conducting question-and-answer sessions after the movie screenings was watching a master in action. He moderated conversations with Tilda Swinton, Werner Herzog, Bertrand Tavernier, Errol Morris, Charlie Kaufman, Sally Potter, Ang Lee, Paul Cox, Haskell Wexler, Norman Jewison, Ramin Bahrani, Anna Thomas, and Jeff Nichols, to name a few.

He was a pro; not only about his knowledge of film history, but about his knowledge of humanity. Because our festival did not take submissions, but was personally curated by him and me and Nate, Roger had a personal connection to each film and so his treatment of it was not merely clinical or academic. And after being the ringmaster all day and all evening, he would still have enough energy to gather guests together for a trip to Steak ‘n Shake.

When Roger lost his ability to speak after hospitalizations in 2006 and 2007, he had a difficult decision to make as to whether to continue the festival. But he asked me and Nate to help carry the torch. Surgery had altered the way he looked (he still looked beautiful to me), and he had been advised to stay away from Ebertfest, lest tabloids like the National Enquirer would cash in on photos of him taken surreptitiously. Instead of being intimidated, we cooked up a plan to have the photographer at the Chicago Sun-Times take a photograph of him with the headline, “I Ain’t a Pretty Boy No More,” the line from “Raging Bull.” The picture was splashed across the front page of the paper and picked up all over the country. Roger said he could relax because now everyone knew what he looked like. He was now ready to return to his beloved Ebertfest. He couldn’t do everything he always did, but he did enough to make everyone grateful that he was still there. I can say with certainty that the film festival helped to give him another powerful reason to carry on under adverse circumstances. We were both thankful for it.

On Wednesday, we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Ebertfest with six of our 12 features having women directors: Ava DuVernay with “13th,” Julie Dash with “Daughters of the Dust,” Amma Asante with “Belle,” Martha Coolidge with “Rambling Rose,” Catherine Bainbridge with “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World,” and Shari Springer Berman with “American Splendor.” Roger met Ava when she was only 8 years old standing outside of the Academy Award rehearsals at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. She recognized him from TV and shouted “Thumbs Up.” Years later, he recognized her talent as a filmmaker. I wish he could be here to welcome her.

This anniversary is special in many ways, so I tried to invite films and filmmakers who were important to Roger, or for whom I felt he would have developed an affinity. We will also screen Gregory Nava’s film “Selena,” which cemented Jennifer Lopez’s stardom. Gregory Nava became a friend over the years and helped direct Roger’s memorial service, where Dash also spoke. Andy Davis, another one of Roger’s favorites, because of his passion for social justice, will present “The Fugitive.” Jeff “The Dude” Dowd, will attend with “The Big Lebowski” by the Coen brothers, whose films Roger greatly admired. The Alloy Orchestra will be back for their perhaps 15th year, with the avant-garde Japanese classic “A Page of Madness.” And Roger’s love for cosmology will be on the screen in 70mm with Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.”

A critical mass of film critics will honor Roger’s legacy with a panel on the future of film criticism. Leonard Maltin, Richard Roeper, Claudia Puig, Michael Phillips, Matt Zoller-Seitz, Brian Tallerico, Sam Fragoso, Matt Fagerholm, Nick Allen, Carrie Rickey, Scott Mantz, Nell Minow, Sheila O’Malley, Susan Wloszczyna, ReBecca Theodore-Vachon, and others will join us.

And to cap it all off, we will have a big street party on Friday night, surrounding Roger’s sculpture on the Plaza outside of the Virginia Theatre, with a band and a cake and ice cream, trying to generate some of that joy that Roger says is our duty to contribute to the world.

Chaz Ebert is the president of the Ebert Co. and co-founder of Ebertfest.