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Dear Roger: I Can't Believe Our Film Festival is Twenty Years Old!

Dear Roger,

I find it hard to believe that our film festival is 20 years old! In the beginning there was Cyberfest and the birthday party for Hal 9000, the computer from Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” And then Dean Kim Rotzoll and Nancy Casey in the College of Media at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign asked you to hold a film festival for one year that would reflect what you would find satisfying. You brought in gems of independent movies, and all manner of genres from silent black-and-white films to 70 mm masterpieces. Of course once you had done it for one year, you considered it a tradition, and so there we were planning for the next year on our ride back home. And here we are twenty years later. 

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When you took your "Leave of Presence" on April 4th, 2013, I had a very difficult decision to make about whether to continue the festival. Actually, the decision the first year wasn't too difficult because by then we had the festival organized and we were making plans for you to attend. But once we learned you wouldn't be there with us, Nate and I took a look at the somewhat unusual line-up you insisted upon, with a choir of singers onstage for Orson Welles' "Chimes at Midnight" followed by a melancholy short video by Grace Wang about a woman mourning her dead lover, and then segueing into "The Ballad of Narayama" about the villagers who took its old people up the mountain to meet the gods when they were 70 years old (you were 70 years old). We had Paul Cox's elegiac "The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh" and your beloved Tilda Swinton with "Julia." And with each screening, we realized that you knew you wouldn't be there. It was so sad that it left us all in tears, including me and Tilda sobbing in each others' arms, as she had recently lost her mother. We concocted a plan to cheer things up and Tilda, Goddess that she is, led the whole auditorium into a dance-a-thon. We pranced and swirled and clapped our hands and danced around so joyfully that it changed the mood to one of a celebration in a great Temple of Cinema. 

This film festival production definitely takes a village. I am so grateful to Nate Kohn, the festival director who has been with us from the beginning, and for the unwavering support from your alma mater, the University of Illinois, including Interim dean Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, President Timothy Killeen and his wife Dr. Roberta M. Johnson, and Chancellor Robert J. Jones. Our helpful new festival coordinator is Andrew Michael Hall ("Andy"), and previously there was Casey Ludwig, and for 14 years the ever-cheerful Mary Susan Britt.  Huge thanks to the beautiful movie palace, the Virginia Theater and the Champaign County Park District. 

We have some amazing supportive donors and sponsors both old and new including Betsy Hendrick of Hendrick House, the Robeson Family, Marsha Woodbury, Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics, Champaign County Alliance for Inclusion and Respect, Shatterglass Studios, Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin, The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Brand Fortner, Steak N' Shake, the African-American Film Critics Association, Carlton Bruett, Roger and Joanne Plummer, Glenn Poor's Audio Video, Laurel Leone and Steve Bellamy, LA Gourmet Catering, SAG-Indie, Fandor, The Welch Family Foundation, Brenda Robinson and Greenberg Glusker, Busey Bank, Jeanene & Rick Stephens, Fandor, Chipman Design Architecture, the Daily Illini and the News-Gazette and many more too numerous to name here. We couldn't have existed for twenty years without our loyal audience and of course our special guests of filmmakers and film critics and scholars who all have contributed to making this one of the most satisfying of film festivals. And last, but certainly not least, eternal gratitude to our illustrious Volunteer-troop. I am so proud of this festival. 

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We collaborated and experimented with various types of films and guests, and stage cues, and indeed we have had to change some things over the years, but the goal has remained the same, to bring together a community of film lovers to celebrate cinema under some of the best conditions possible, in the hope that we would emerge from the theater slightly better than when we entered it. The enthusiasm of festivalgoers each year—both return customers and new faces—has exceeded our wildest expectations.  And I daresay you would be thrilled at this year’s line-up. 

But before I tell you about the films, I want to honor four people who passed away recently who were important to us at the festival. First, Mary Frances Fagan, whom you dubbed our “Guardian Angel,” because as a spokeswoman for American Airlines, she helped to bring in guests from all over the world at a crucial time in the festival’s development. She passed away in February surrounded by many friends and family who loved her. Her Memorial Service took place April 14th in Chicago at the Museum of Broadcast Communications. We are also saddened at the deaths of Leonard Doyle and Sharen (Sherry) Slade who greeted us so cheerfully over the years. They were among some of the best and most devoted Volunteers at the Virginia Theater, and were both pillars of the community. We will bestow prizes in their names at the festival this year to keep them close in our memories.

And just this past Friday, one of your oldest and dearest friends from the University of Illinois, the revered sports writer William (Bill) Nack, left us. You were close pals during your time at the Daily Illini when you were editor and you remained life-long buddies. Bill was one of the finest writers around, not just about sports, but about everything. He loved quoting the last chapter of The Great Gatsby, in fact he did so at our wedding. And he did it on the stage of the Virginia Theater in your honor after you left us. He loved Ebertfest and he will be missed.

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Roger, a seismic change has taken place in Hollywood starting with the reckoning over sexual misconduct by powerful men like studio head Harvey Weinstein. It evolved into the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, which we hope will contribute to the dignity of human interaction, and will also lead to more transformative and equal opportunities for women and people of color. In a nod to those movements, we are spotlighting the work of extraordinary female directors and performers this year. Six out of twelve of our movie selections were directed by women.

We are proud to present a trio of filmmakers I’ve dubbed the Three Queens of Cinema: Ava DuVernay, Julie Dash and Amma Asante. They will be joined at Ebertfest by three more exceptional female directors: Martha Coolidge, Shari Springer Berman and Catherine Bainbridge. For the full line-up of our scheduled guests, make sure to check out our two-part list (click here for Part One and here for Part Two). We will also be highlighting great performances from women such as Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Haley Lu Richardson and the 25th anniversary of Jennifer Lopez’s star-making role as “Selena,” not to mention an avant garde actress in a silent classic. I’ll tell you a bit more about each of those later…

Opening our festival this year is one of the greatest cinematic love letters to the city of Chicago ever crafted, Andrew Davis’ 1993 edge-of-your-seat thriller, “The Fugitive.” Adapting the hit 1960s series for the big screen, Davis cast Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble, a man wrongly accused of his wife’s murder who must prove his innocence, all the while being pursued by the dogged Deputy Gerard (played by Tommy Lee Jones in an Oscar-winning performance). In your four-star review, you praised Davis for transcending genre and showing “an ability to marry action and artistry that deserves comparison with Hitchcock, yes, and also with David Lean and Carol Reed.”

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We are welcoming back director Gregory Nava to Ebertfest with his film, “Selena,” the biopic of the Texas-born Tejano singer who rose to the top of the Latin music charts before being murdered by the president of her fan club at age 23. This is the film that made Jennifer Lopez a star, and her riveting portrayal never ceases to move and inspire audiences. You wrote in your three-and-a-half star review, “‘Selena’ succeeds, through Lopez’s performance, in evoking the magic of a sweet and talented young woman. And, like Nava's ‘My Family,’ it's insightful in portraying Mexican-American culture as a rich resource with its own flavor and character.”

Roger, you would be happy to know that Jeff Dowd, who inspired the iconic character of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen Brothers’ cult sensation, “The Big Lebowski,” will be with us. You once wrote of him, “I have long known Jeff Dowd. I can easily see how he might have inspired the Dude. He is as tall, as shaggy and sometimes as mood-altered as Jeff Lebowski, although much more motivated. He remembers names better than a politician, is crafty in his strategies, and burns with a fiery zeal on behalf of those films he consents to represent.” 

Once again, the Alloy Orchestra, our friends Terry Donahue, Roger Miller and Ken Winokur, are planning to wow us with a rarely seen silent landmark, this time from Japan. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 picture, “A Page of Madness” is a drama with a surrealistic dash of horror, following a man’s attempts to free his suicidal wife from an asylum. Kinugasa was part of an avant grade group of Japanese artists dubbed the “Shinkankakuha” (a.k.a. “School of the New Perceptions”), and the original story was credited to future Nobel Prize-winner, Yasunari Kawabata. Lost for 45 years, it was rediscovered by the director in a storehouse, and will be presented at the Virginia Theatre in a pristine print with an all-new live score courtesy of the Alloy Orchestra. (Click here to read Jasper Sharp's article about the film at Midnight Eye.)

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One of the most thrilling big screen events at this year’s Ebertfest promises to be the 70 mm print of Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-winning 2014 epic, “Interstellar.Matthew McConaughey plays an astronaut who volunteers to travel through a wormhole to ensure the survival of his family—and humanity itself. To me, this film illustrates not only empathy for other human beings but empathy for the planet. In fact, the Ebert Center will present an inaugural symposium on Empathy and the Universe in October of 2018, at the University of Illinois. 

Nominated for three major prizes at this year’s Film Independent Spirit Awards, including Best First Feature, writer/director Kogonada’s “Columbus” charts the budding relationship between Jin (John Cho), the Korean-born son of an architect, and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman resolved to being a caregiver for her mother. RogerEbert.com critic Sheila O’Malley marveled at how Kogonada and cinematographer Elisha Christian “blend the background into the foreground and vice versa, so that you see things through the eyes of the two architecture-obsessed main characters. Watching the film is almost like feeling the muscles in your eyes shift, as you look up from reading a book to stare out at the ocean. From the very first shot, it's clear that the buildings will be essential. They are a part of the lives unfolding in their shadows. Sometimes it almost seems like they are listening.” 

The first of our six women directors, Ava DuVernay, first met you outside of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during rehearsals for the Academy Awards when she was 8 years old. Currently, she has become the first African-American female filmmaker to direct a $100,000,000 movie, “A Wrinkle in Time,” which is a love letter to girls everywhere.

In 2011, she released her first feature, the documentary “I Will Follow,” which you praised as “an invitation to empathy.” Two years after the success of her 2014 Best Picture nominee, “Selma,” DuVernay returned to the nonfiction realm with “13th”, a scathing exploration of injustice in the U.S. justice system. Awarding the film four stars, our critic, Odie Henderson, wrote, “Director Ava DuVernay takes an unflinching, well-informed and thoroughly researched look at the American system of incarceration, specifically how the prison industrial complex affects people of color. Her analysis could not be more timely nor more infuriating. The film builds its case piece by shattering piece, inspiring levels of shock and outrage that stun the viewer, leaving one shaken and disturbed before closing out on a visual note of hope designed to keep us on the hook as advocates for change.” 

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Julie Dash’s 1991 classic, “Daughters of the Dust,” is a work of pure cinematic artistry that explores how African mores flourished on the sea islands off the coat of South Carolina and Georgia, where the Gullah culture remained preserved in the 20th century. Since its release, the film has gained a reputation for being one of the greatest independent films ever made, and also loosely inspired Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” Julie Dash led the way for other woman directors. 

When Amma Asante’s “Belle” premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, it was clear that a star had been born both in front of and behind the lens. This was only the second directorial effort of Asante’s career and it affirmed her status as a major talent, while providing a stellar showcase for its leading lady, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She plays the illegitimate mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral in 18th century England who is raised by her aristocratic great uncle (Tom Wilkinson). Though her social standing is high, her skin color prevents her from being fully accepted. As she fights to end the scourge of slavery, she falls for an idealistic young man (Sam Reid) who just might be her match. Bilge Ebiri of The Playlist wrote that the film is as much about “being a woman as it is about being black.” Amma Asante did what no one thought was possible, bringing a Jane Austen sensibility to topics of race and slavery. 

Hail Martha Coolidge and her 1991 film, “Rambling Rose”, which succeeds in making history with Diane Ladd and Laura Dern becoming the first mother-daughter duo to earn Academy Award nominations for the same film. You hailed their performances as two of the year’s best, saying, “Laura Dern finds all of the right notes in a performance that could have been filled with wrong ones. Diane Ladd is able to suggest an eccentric yet reasonable Southern belle who knows what is really important.” You also noted that the film likely benefited from being directed by a woman. “Men, I think, are sometimes too single-minded about sex,” you wrote. “Bring up the subject, and it's all they can think about. Coolidge takes this essentially lurid story and frames it with humor and compassion, putting sexuality in context, understanding who Rose really is, and what stuff the family is really made of.”

The so-strange-it-must-be-true life of file clerk Harvey Pekar served as fodder for his comic book alter ego in “American Splendor,” a rigorously unsentimental self-portrait. The 2003 film adaptation of the same name, directed by Shari Springer Berman and her husband, Robert Pulcini, made the inspired choice of juxtaposing the real Pekar with an actor portraying him. That actor turned out to be Paul Giamatti, and the role proved to cement the actor’s status as one of American cinema’s most cherished performers. In your four-star review, you wrote that this “magnificently audacious movie” allows “fact and fiction to coexist in the same frame.” In addition to welcoming the directors, we look forward to bringing back the producer and distributor Ted Hope, who was a previous festival favorite.

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Continuing our musical Sundays at Ebertfest, we are happy to present Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana's documentary, “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World”, which earned major prizes at festivals such as Sundance and Hot Docs. It’s an exploration of the crucial and under-appreciated role Native American artists have played in the music industry. Our critic Glenn Kenny writes, “the music of the Shawnee, the Choctaw, the Mohawk, the Apache, and so many other tribes, is in a very real sense the first American music. Race-mixing between African-Americans and Indians resulted in a cultural consciousness that enabled a melding of African music and Indian.” He also believed Link Wray's 1957 guitar instrumental, “Rumble,” is “to modern rock music what the monolith was to those primates in the ‘Dawn of Man’ section of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’” 

This will be followed by a Q&A with director Rita Coburn-Whack (who was just nominated for a Peabody Award for her film "Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise"), and concert pianist and head of the International Beethoven Project, George LePauw. Afterwards we will be treated to a live performance by Native American artist, Pura Fe. 

In your honor, for the twentieth anniversary, we are hosting a panel on the future of film criticism and inviting a critical mass of your fellow film critics such as Claudia Puig, the first Latina film critic to head the Los Angeles Film Critics Association; your partner, Richard Roeper, Leonard MaltinMichael Phillips, Carrie Rickey, Rebecca Theodore-Vachon, Monica Castillo, Matt Zoller Seitz, Brian Tallerico, Matt Fagerholm, Nick Allen, Peter Sobczynski, Sheila O’Malley, Susan Wloszczyna, Nell Minow, Angelica Jade Bastién, Scott Mantz, Sam Fragoso, and Chuck Koplinski. 

In addition to the Critics Panel, we will present other stimulating academic panels such as the one about destigmatizing mental illness through the arts led by Professors Eric Pierson and Todd Rendleman and the Alliance for the Promotion of Acceptance, Inclusion and Respect; and Leveling the Playing Field in the Age of #MeToo, and Dr. Richard Neupert’s Cinema History. You would have no doubt been eager to participate in each of these. 

And finally, on your behalf, Roger, I want to thank Donna and Scott Anderson, and the artist Rick Harney, for the magnificent sculpture of you outside the Virginia Theatre. I thank them and the festival-goers for honoring your memory and keeping your legacy alive. In your spirit of inclusiveness, I encourage everyone to gather around the sculpture to greet each other Friday night when we have the big Street Party with a band and cake and ice cream on the plaza to celebrate this auspicious anniversary. I know, somehow, that you will be there. 

Love,

Chaz


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