Ebertfest Film Festival 2023, Focuses on Empathy
The Ebertfest film festival began on Wednesday, April 19, and ended Saturday evening, April 22, with all screenings at the majestic Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign, IL.
Ebertfest was founded in 1999 by the late Roger Ebert, a University of Illinois Journalism graduate, and Pulitzer Prize award-winning Chicago film critic. Early beginnings of the festival were to celebrate films that may have been overlooked by audiences, critics, and distributors. This years focus centers on excellent films that portray empathy. Chaz Ebert, Roger’s beloved wife, business partner, and writer/publisher of RogerEbert.com, continues Roger’s legacy by serving as producer and host. She, along with Festival Director Nate Kohn, select films based on Roger’s criteria.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Roger Ebert’s death, the 2023 program reflects his guiding principle of empathy, said Chaz Ebert, who co-founded and hosts Ebertfest. While driving to Ebertfest, from near Chicago, I’m always filled with an assortment of emotions, from anticipation and nostalgia. You see, my father and mother—Richard and Kathrine Knight—lived on the University of Illinois campus while attending college. I was born in my father’s first year of college, 2nd semester to be exact. My life began in an apartment on Green Street, right down from the exact Street (Green Street) where Roger Ebert grew up. I have fond memories of the University of Illinois campus as I’ve visited there on several occasions over the years with my parents. Although I’m always excited about attending the festival as I know that the festival will broaden my scope of excellent films, and the enjoyment of meeting the talent associated with the films. Attending the festival for the fourth time, I’m always comforted by the surroundings where we all began as a family. The U. of IL campus will always be close to my heart, as it’s always a special treat for me to be on the campus.
Beginning Wednesday afternoon with a small reception at the U of IL’s Presidents House, Chaz and Nate welcomed festival talent and guests. I enjoy visiting the gorgeous home as the interior is as beautiful as the exterior, and the antiques in the home are exquisite. It was a somewhat windy day listening to the presentation outside in the courtyard, yet I’m always thankful to be outside during the beginning of Spring. Chaz said, “I view the wind as a sign from Roger.”
Chaz said, “In Roger’s memory, we will gather together in what Roger has called the temple of cinema to reaffirm our connections to each other,” the program for Ebertfest 2023, “Empathy at the Movies,” includes 11 films, two shorts, 20 plus guests, and two musical performances.
The following is the schedule that is posted to RogerEbert.com. Also included are a few comments about some of the films I saw, and talent interviews, those are in italics.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 19 6:30 P.M.
NINE DAYS (2020)
This ultra-original American fantasy drama “Nine Days” considers the meaning of life as potential souls audition for the chance to be born. In the RogerEbert.com review, the film was praised for centering questions around “the eternal issues of the human condition: What does it mean to be alive? How do we appreciate life while we are here? Is it even possible?” The film won the Sundance Film Festival’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in the U.S. Dramatic competition.
It’s best to view this fantasy, sci-fi film with little preview knowledge, as the story is so unique. The film asks questions about being ‘human,’ the differences, the similarities, the weakness, the strengths, and the ethics of a person.
Guests Director Edson Oda
After a series of award-winning short films and music videos, Japanese Brazilian writer and director Edson Oda made his film directorial debut with Nine Days. Based in Los Angeles, Oda is a BAFTA Breakthrough alum, a Sundance Screenwriters Lab alum, and a Latin Grammy-nominated director for best music video.
Producer Jason Michael Berman President of Mandalay Pictures, Jason Michael Berman has produced feature films that have premiered at Cannes Film Festival, SXSW, Sundance Film Festival, and others. His latest film, Air, about Michael Jordan’s partnership with Nike, will be released in April. He also helped to develop the Sundance Institute’s film financing program called Catalyst. An alum of University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, he is now an adjunct professor there.
THURSDAY, APRIL 20 9:30 A.M.
TOKYO STORY (1953)
This year’s selection from the Ebertfest audience choice movie poll is Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. In Roger Ebert’s review of the film—which he called “one of the greatest films of all time”—he wrote, “Ozu is not only a great director but a great teacher, and after you know his films, a friend. With no other director do I feel affection for every single shot. … It ennobles the cinema. It says, yes, a movie can help us make small steps against our imperfections.”
The immersion into Japanese culture in the 1950s is enlightening. I appreciated the filmmaking techniques as well. The discussion afterward with Michael Phillips and Nick Allen was fantastic, as they discussed other Japanese films.
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)
Continuing Ebertfest’s tradition of hosting a live music performance with a silent film, the Anvil Orchestra will accompany the German Expressionist silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene. It depicts the story of an insane hypnotist who uses a somnambulist (a sleepwalker) to commit crimes.
Guest The Anvil Orchestra
Fondly named after a misspoken introduction by Roger Ebert at the Alloy Orchestra’s first Ebertfest appearance, the Anvil Orchestra is comprised of two-thirds of the Alloy Orchestra, which has since disbanded, with original member Terry Donahue and longtime member Roger Clark Miller. The multi-instrumentalists play an unusual combination of found percussion and state-of-the-art electronics. Donahue plays junk percussion, accordion, musical saw, and banjo. Miller plays synthesizer, and percussion; he also performs with the post-punk band Mission of Burma that he co-founded in 1979.
MY NAME IS SARA (2019)
Sponsored by the Alliance for Inclusion and Respect
In this prize-winning docudrama, “My Name Is Sara” gives viewers a look into the real life of a 13-year-old Polish Jew named Sara Góralnik who flees Poland after her parents were killed by Nazis at the outset of the Holocaust. Passing as an Orthodox Christian, Sara gets hired as a nanny by a Ukrainian farmer and his wife, and must endure grueling work throughout the war all while trying to protect her true identity and discovering her employers have dark secrets of their own.
The film gives a harrowing true-to-life depiction of what young Sara Góralnik needed to do to survive. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen of Nazi Germans and the war during that time.
Guests Executive Producer Mickey Shapiro, the eldest son of Holocaust survivors Sara Góralnik Shapiro and Asa Shapiro, escaped to the U.S. by boat with his parents in 1949, at nearly two years old. Shapiro is owner and principal of M. Shapiro Real Estate Group, one of the nation’s largest property management companies. He produced My Name Is Sara in association with the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation: The Institute for Visual History and Education, founded by Steven Spielberg to videotape and preserve interviews with survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust.
Shapiro is a longtime member of the USC Shoah Foundation Board of Councilors Executive Committee and recently established the Mickey Shapiro Endowed Chair in Holocaust Education. He was previously appointed by President George W. Bush to be a council member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and is a former director of the Michigan Holocaust Memorial Center.
Director Steven Oritt, who got his start directing music videos for bands such as the Foo Fighters and OneRepublic, focuses on documentary and true-life, character-driven stories, including American Native and Accidental Climber. My Name Is Sara is Oritt’s directorial debut of a feature film.
AMERICAN FOLK (2017) 9:00 P.M.
American Folk follows Elliott and Joni, both folk musicians, on a road trip from Los Angeles to New York City in the days following 9/11. Both folk singers in real life, Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth portray the two strangers who forge a bond over several days through their love of music, encounters with memorable people, and a shared mission to “bring back the folk.”
Guests Director David Heinz
For the last decade, David Heinz has been working in cutting rooms on both independent and studio pictures alike. He has edited Adult World with John Cusack, which was released theatrically by IFC in 2014. In 2011 he served as the additional editor of This Means War for Fox as well as several other recent independent features. Heinz recently contributed as the visual effects editor to The Jungle Book, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Live Free or Die Hard, to name a few. American Folk marks his feature directorial debut.
Singer/Actress Amber Rubarth
Amber Rubarth is an award-winning singer-songwriter who has toured the world alongside such artists as Emmylou Harris, Richie Havens, and Ralph Stanley. A winner of the prestigious NPR’s Mountain Stage New Song Contest, Rubarth’s album Wildflowers in the Graveyard features a song heavily featured in the film. American Folk also marks Rubarth’s big screen debut.
FRIDAY, APRIL 21
TO LESLIE (2022) 10:00 A.M.
In To Leslie, a drama inspired by true events, Andrea Riseborough plays Leslie, a struggling single mom living in Texas who wins the lottery only to waste it all on alcohol and drugs, much to the dismay of friends and family, including her only son. Years later, Leslie attempts to get her life back on track but the path to redemption may be more difficult than she can handle. For her portrayal of Leslie, Riseborough was nominated for Best Actress at this year’s Academy Awards.
Andrea Riseborough gives a riveting performance of an alcoholic, drug user that hits rock bottom. She’s betrayed her son numerous times, although seeks redemption as she lives a sober life. The ending displays empathy as she continues her life of sobriety.
Guest Director Michael Morris
With recent credits as executive producer of the final season of Better Call Saul, Michael Morris’s directorial feature film debut To Leslie was selected by the National Board of Review as one of the top 10 independent films of 2022. His roots in theatre began as director of the Old Vic in London. In the new Apple TV+ series Extrapolations, he directs the finale episode.
Michael Morris’s discussion was interesting as the writer Ryan Binaco based the story on his journey and relationship with his own mother.
MARIAN ANDERSON: THE WHOLE WORLD IN HER HANDS (2022) 2:30 P.M.
Directed by Peabody and Emmy Award-winner Rita Coburn, Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands explores the life of the African American singer and civil rights pioneer, who died in 1993 at the age of 96. The film highlights Anderson’s career, art, and legacy as a Black classical singer with a breathtaking and rare vocal range as well as her work to further civil rights. The film allows viewers to hear Anderson’s own voice and point of view through archival interview recordings, photographs, and personal correspondence with family and friends, including Martin Luther King Jr., Josephine Baker, and Langston Hughes.
“Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands” was such a treat for me as I had not heard of this remarkable classical singer. The excellent film, paints a portrait of the times, while showcasing a determined woman who paved her way despite racial obstacles. I loved the varied creative formats of the documentary and the countless number of archival material.
Guest Director Rita Coburn
Rita Coburn is the co-director/co-producer of Peabody Award-winning Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, the first feature documentary on Maya Angelou, which screened at Ebertfest 2019. Coburn’s work has also earned three Emmys for the documentaries Curators of Culture, Remembering 47th Street, and African Roots American Soil. Coburn is the owner of RCW Media Productions, Inc., a multi-media production company.
Producer Brenda Robinson, producer and entertainment attorney, is involved with numerous film, television, and music projects, most recently as a financier on the Academy Award-winning documentary Icarus as well as Won’t You Be My Neighbor and Step. Robinson is currently head of film finance and inclusion strategies for HiddenLight Productions, a global studio founded by Hillary Clinton, Sam Branson, and Chelsea Clinton. She is also a member of Impact Partners, which is dedicated to funding independent documentaries that focus on social issues.
Viveca Richards Following the screening will be a live performance by Viveca Richards, an opera soprano student from the University of Illinois Lyric Theatre.
Listening to filmmaker Rita Coburn’s journey with her movie was fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion as I connected strongly with the film. It was my favorite of the festival.
DEREK DELGAUDIO’S IN & OF ITSELF (2020) 7:30 P.M.
This biography explores identity and illusion while the storyteller and magician Derek DelGaudio attempts to answer, “Who am I?” In & Of Itself originated as a play written and performed by DelGaudio and directed by Frank Oz, which ran Off-Broadway for 72 weeks.
Guests Director Frank Oz
Emmy Award-winning Frank Oz is known for creating and performing many beloved characters on The Muppet Show (Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal) and Sesame Street (Cookie Monster, Bert, Grover), as well as bringing to life Yoda in the Star Wars series. He has directed numerous films over the past four decades, including The Muppets Take Manhattan, Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob?, and The Stepford Wives.
Derek DelGaudio An acclaimed and accomplished writer, performer, and magician, Derek DelGaudio wrote and co-starred in the avant-garde magic theater show Nothing to Hide, directed by Neil Patrick Harris, a few years before In & Of Itself began its Off-Broadway run. DelGaudio became the Artist in Residence for Walt Disney Imagineering in 2014 and was named Magician of the Year in 2016 from the Academy of Magical Arts. His memoir, Amoralman: A True Story and Other Lies, was published in 2021.
Producer Vanessa Lauren is a producer of a diverse range of arts and entertainment projects. She produced both the Off-Broadway show and the film In & Of Itself. Her previous projects include Low in the Water, MST3K, Super Troopers 2, and Zappa.
Producer Jake Friedman
Jake Friedman has produced In & Of Itself and was executive producer of the TV special Neal Brennan: Blocks.
Janet Pierson, director emeritus of SXSW Film Festival, has spent the last 45 years of her career supporting independent films and filmmakers in various capacities. Pierson was named to The Guardian’s Film Power 100 list in 2010 and the Indiewire Influencers in 2013. A regular panelist at film festivals, Pierson is a member of the advisory board for the Austin Film Society, founded by filmmaker Richard Linklater, and the University of Texas Press Advisory Board.
The movie is immersive, as you can’t help but feel you are actually in the audience of the show. It asks questions and searches for answers. My husband Bill and I thoroughly enjoyed the film, leaving you with astonishment and wonder.
SATURDAY, APRIL 22 9:00 A.M. [SHORT FILM PROGRAM]
CLUB ALLI (2020)
In just under nine minutes, brothers Julien and Justen Turner, who have made nearly a dozen short films, direct a sci-fi drama about America and the ever-present socio-economic divide in Club Alli, which won the CU International Film Festival. The duo, who have been featured on CNN and in the New York Times, say they wrote the short “to play around with the mirage of a free society. Our goal is to change the way that people think.”
Writers/Directors Justen and Julien Turner
Filmmaker brothers Justen and Julien Turner, who run Dreadhead Films, are the youngest filmmakers to have been commissioned to produce a short film for Sesame Street for its 2018-19 season, at ages 15 and 19. They have produced numerous short films that have been honored at national film festivals.
Max Libman is the teenage founder and director of the CU International Film Festival that debuted in October in Urbana and featured eight short films, one of which was produced by the Turner brothers. In his young career, Libman has also been honored for his screenwriting.
TEAM DREAM (2022)
Audience members will be reminded it’s never too late to make a dream come true in the short documentary film Team Dream. Luchina Fisher directs this 17-minute film, which features two female friends, Ann and Madeline, preparing to swim in the National Senior Games held in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The two women also discuss what it was like growing up in Chicago during times of segregation and their experience after joining Team Dream, an organization that trains women of color in swimming, biking, and triathlons.
Guests Director Luchina Fisher
Luchina Fisher, director, writer, and producer of the short documentary Team Dream, is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist who works at the intersection of race, gender, and identity. Team Dream, executive produced by Queen Latifah, won the Audience Choice Award at the 2022 Chicago International Film Festival and aired on BET on March 24.
Madeline Murphy Rabb is president of Murphy Rabb, Inc., a fine arts advisory firm she founded in Chicago in 1992. She is nationally renowned for her expertise in identifying and showcasing artwork created by African American artists, both emerging and established. Rabb has provided guidance to major art collectors, corporations, and institutions across the nation.
10:30 A.M. FRESH (1994)
Samuel L. Jackson stars in the Sundance Film Festival Winner Fresh, an urban crime thriller Roger Ebert described as “a story of depth and power, in which the dangerous streets are seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old who reacts with the objectivity he has learned from chess, and the anger taught to him by his life.” Fresh (Sean Nelson), a young drug runner living in New York, is fed up with the violence and death he encounters in his daily life. Using chess lessons he learned from his alcoholic father, played by Jackson, Fresh devises a plan to free himself and his drug-addicted sister from the corrupt system.
Guest Producer Lawrence Bender
Lawrence Bender has produced well-known films over the past 30 years, many award-nominated, from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bill series, and Inglorious Basterds, to the Academy Award-winning documentary on climate change An Inconvenient Truth and Good Will Hunting.
Fresh is a time capsule of what it means to be homeless, without many options other than working for gang members to survive. The game of chess is compared to the game of life and is woven in beautifully, providing the viewer with much to ponder. Also one of my favorite films.
3:00 P.M.WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)
The German cinematic masterpiece Wings of Desire made director Wim Wenders’s name synonymous with film art. “You’re seduced into the spell of this movie,” wrote Roger Ebert in his original review. The film, which was shot in black and white, and color, features Bruno Ganz as Damiel, an angel who is willing to give up his perch high over Berlin, his ability to hear thoughts, as well as his immortality to return to Earth after falling in love with a trapeze artist. Created shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ebert wrote that “the film is like music or a landscape: It clears a space in my mind, and in that space I can consider questions. Some of them are asked in the film: ‘Why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and why not there? When did time begin and where does space end?'”
Guest Michael Barker, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics with Tom Bernard, has distributed, and often produced, some of the finest independent movies over the past 40 years. Barker’s films have received nearly 200 Academy Award nominations and more than 40 wins, including several for Best Picture, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Foreign Language Film. He and his colleagues have also restored and theatrically reissued some of the great films of the past. In 2022, Barker and Bernard received the Game Changer Award from the Zurich Film Festival, in recognition of their services to film culture.
8:30 P.M.FORREST GUMP (1994)
Roger Ebert described Forrest Gump, the six-time Oscar winning comedy drama starring Tom Hanks, as a “magical movie.” Ebert wrote, “I’ve never met anyone like Forrest Gump in a movie before, and for that matter I’ve never seen a movie quite like Forrest Gump.” The film follows the life of the slow-witted but good-natured Gump, from a young boy in the 1950s with braces on his legs to a father in the 1980s. Although born with a low IQ, Gump’s mental impairments don’t prevent him from being a part of extraordinary moments in history or falling in love and eventually marrying his childhood sweetheart.
Guest Actor Mykelti Williamson
In addition to playing the memorable shrimp-loving character “Bubba” in the Academy Award-winning Forrest Gump, actor Mykelti Williamson has also starred in the Academy Award-nominated film Fences and Con Air,as well as the TV series Law & Order: Organized Crime and Chicago P.D., among other movies and TV shows. He has also recently directed episodes of Sweet Magnolias, Chicago Med, and Chicago P.D.
Meeting Mykelti Williamson was a treat, as he’s been promoting the film for the last 30 years. He also had some great inside stories to tell. We loved viewing the movie in the Virginia Theater as the experience is so memorable on the big screen.
Other guests throughout Ebertfest included film critics: Nick Allen, Matt Fagerholm, Nell Minow,
Michael Phillips, Brian Tallerico, and Matt Zoller-Seitz
Sarah Knight Adamson©April 30, 2023