TEN YEARS AGO, on April 4th, 2013, my late husband Roger passed away. He had worked diligently with me and Festival Director Nate Kohn to put the finishing touches on a special list of movies and guests to be presented at the Roger Ebert Film Festival ("Ebertfest") held in conjunction with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We fully expected Roger to be in attendance at the Virginia Theatre that year on April 17th. But in hindsight, when I look back at what he selected, I think he knew that he wouldn't be there physically. He did however ensure that the show would go on.
He loved Ebertfest and savored every minute of planning it. This year, to honor his legacy, we chose the theme of "Empathy at the Movies." Empathy, he often said, is the most essential element of civilization. It helps us to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who is different from us. We both believed that cinema at its noblest inspires us to understand others and encourages tolerance, patience and acts of kindness and compassion.
So Nate and I undertook the careful curation of films that showed various aspects of lives that were different. We experienced vicariously what Marian Anderson endured before her triumphant night at the Metropolitan Opera. We held our breath during courageous acts of survival during the Holocaust, and suffered along with the visceral pain of an alcoholic woman raging out of control. Our minds wrapped around the wonder of a magician helping us to discover who we are and equally at the musings of a being in the ethers making decisions about who was worthy of being born.
Our Ebertfest empathy journey took us to the countryside in Tokyo, to Berlin to witness Angels before the fall of the wall, and allowed us to rub shoulders with folksingers in America amidst the backdrop of 9/11. We swam along with older African-American women who taught us that age is nothing but a number. We went to the future with young filmmakers who found a parallel about inequality in history, and were brought back to the reality of a young drug courier whose mastery of the game of chess literally saves his life.
During these precious days we spent recently in the dark together with these films, we enjoyed the music of the Anvil Orchestra, who adopted a name that was inadvertently given to them by Roger. And we ended the festival with a film that Roger and I loved because of its seeming innocence and goodness at the time, and it is one that made us want to go out and eat shrimp.
So without further ado, here are the films and Guests of Ebertfest 2023. (All photos are the property of Ebertfest and were taken by Timothy Hiatt for the Roger Ebert Film Festival.)
We were warmly welcomed by Dr. Roberta Johnson Killeen, the wife of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign President Timothy L. Killeen, at her house, which served as the elegant setting for the festival's opening night reception for filmmakers, sponsors and special guests.
Our indispensable Festival Director Dr. Nate Kohn was also on hand to make opening remarks. I am so grateful to him for all of his hard work. He has been the Festival Director since the beginning and we are fortunate to have him.
We were privileged to open the festival with Director Edson Oda and Producer Jason Michael Berman's acclaimed 2020 fantasy, "Nine Days," about an ethereal being (Winston Duke) who interviews the souls of humans that have yet to be born. Talk about empathy and looking at the lives of others...
Oda's directorial debut is full of ideas and scenes that make us think. His creativity is unique, the opposite of a cookie cutter approach, and the audience responded in kind. They can't wait to see what he will do next. What came next for Jason Berman is one of the most critically acclaimed films in theaters, "AIR", about the making of the Michael Jordan brand with Nike. I call it a love letter to Michael's mother, Mrs Deloris Jordan.
Oda and Berman took to the stage for the post-screening Q&A moderated by RogerEbert.com Managing Editor Brian Tallerico (whose interviews are the gold standard) and Film Critic Sheila O'Malley.
Day Two began with one of Roger's favorite films, Yasujirô Ozu's 1953 masterpiece, "Tokyo Story," which follows an elderly couple on their trip to visit their children and grandchildren who don't seem to have time for them.
Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips and RogerEbert.com Senior Editor Nick Allen spoke with the audience about the film afterward. They were great.
The festival's special annual screening of a silent classic welcomed back the duo of Roger Clark Miller and Terry Donahue with the Anvil Orchestra (formerly of the Alloy Orchestra.) This program is always one of the most anticipated of Ebertfest.
The Anvil Orchestra (named by Roger) performed their original score to accompany Robert Weine's 1920 landmark, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."
The music that they played this year was a spontaneous improvisation, which they discussed with Michael Phillips...
...and professor Todd Rendleman of Seattle Pacific University during the onstage Q&A.
Director Steven Oritt's 2019 Holocaust-era drama, "My Name is Sara," was based on the experiences of Executive Producer Mickey Shapiro's mother, Mrs .Sara Guralnik Shapiro, who strove to save her life by protecting her identity as a Jew while seeking refuge in Poland during WWII. In real life she was only twelve years old during this harrowing period. This was Oritt's directorial debut. And it made a big impact on the audience.
It was an honor to have Mickey Shapiro, who serves on the board of the Shoah Foundation, share a vital family story, illuminating a chapter in world history that must never be forgotten. He personally trusted Steven to direct this personal story, and said that his mother would have been pleased. She never got a chance to view the finished film.
Oritt and Shapiro participated in the post-film Q&A with moderators Dr. Eric Pierson and RogerEbert.com Editor at Large Matt Zoller Seitz as well as Holocaust survivor Dr. William Gingold.
The final film of Day Two at Ebertfest 2023 was "American Folk," David Heinz's directorial debut of his 2017 music-filled drama about two folk singers who meet by chance on the road in the days after 9/11. As they made their way to New York they depended on the kindness of strangers.
Heinz joined his film's star Amber Rubarth to speak about the film onstage with two moderators, RogerEbert.com Contributing Editor Nell Minow and Film Critic Sheila O'Malley. Ms. Rubarth was making her acting debut.
Rubarth then mesmerized the audience with a musical performance of some of her original songs.
Day Three of Ebertfest 2023 began with one of the most talked about films of last year, Director Michael Morris' "To Leslie," starring Andrea Riseborough as an alcoholic woman struggling to rebuild her life.
Riseborough was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
Morris took part in the post-film Q&A moderated by Tallerico and Zoller Seitz who wrote the film review of the movie. His articulate discussion was followed closely by the audience. And I have to say, seeing the film on the big screen in the Virginia Theater brought me to tears.
On Friday afternoon, director Rita Coburn presented her latest documentary on a trailblazing life, in this case that of the extraordinary opera singer Marian Anderson. This is an important American story and we all learned so much. These are facts that should be taught in school. And we also got to hear the actual singing voice of Ms Anderson.
Previously, Ms. Coburn appeared at Ebertfest with her film about Maya Angelou, which won an award.
Her film, "Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands," was followed by a Q&A with Ms Coburn and Producer Brenda Robinson moderated by RogerEbert.com Contributing Editor Nell Minow and Dr. Douglas A. Williams.
We were privileged to witness a live performance by Soprano opera singer Viveca Richards accompanied by Katie Barr on the piano.
"Derek DelGaudio's In & Of Itself," which was directed by the legendary Frank Oz, received its very first screening in a packed theater since its premiere at SXSW in 2020 was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Based on DelGaudio and Oz's acclaimed stage show of the same name, the film explores the illusory nature of identity through the ingenious craft and personal journey of its titular storyteller and conceptual magician. Director Oz said that DelGaudio should be considered a Co-Director.
Executive producer Stephen Colbert recorded a taped intro especially for this screening, while DelGaudio and Oz joined RogerEbert.com Literary Editor Matt Fagerholm onstage for the post-film Q&A.
Producers Vanessa Lauren and Jake Friedman were also in attendance and received the festival's coveted award of the Golden Thumb.
It was a joy getting to share in their excitement of finally seeing their film with a huge and enthusiastic audience. What a magical film experience!
The fourth and final day of Ebertfest 2023 began with a Double Short Feature of "Team Dream," Director Luchina Fisher's documentary about two fierce female participants swimming in the 2022 National Senior Games, and "Club Alli," a timely sci-fi parable from Co-Directors Julien and Justen Turner.
The onstage Q&A that followed featured Fisher along with her film's subjects Ann Smith, Madeline Murphy Rabb and coach Derrick Q. Milligan... Their film put to bed the tired tropes that Black people can't swim, and that older people can't be athletes! These beautiful women said we can do it all!
...as well as the Turner Brothers, who were joined by Dr. Williams and one of the film's key champions, Max Libman, the young founder of the CU International Film Festival.
It was a treat to see the Turner Brothers visibly excited by their Golden Thumb awards. They have recently been written about as true up and comers in Hollywood! I look forward to welcoming them back to Ebertfest.
And Luchina's film was so inspiring that it made the audience want to start swimming their own laps!
The next three selections were all films that received four stars from Roger, starting with Boaz Yakin's 1994 debut feature, "Fresh," about a 12-year-old drug courier who utilizes his chess skills in a game of survival.
The film's celebrated producer, Lawrence Bender, joined Tallerico for the post-film Q&A along with yours truly and festival director Nate Kohn.
Mr. Bender's credits also include such Oscar-winning titles as "Pulp Fiction," "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Inglourious Basterds." And he is known for his philanthropy and his behind the scenes help in political matters.
Roger would have loved to have welcomed Lawrence to the festival.
Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker presented Wim Wenders' 1987 marvel, "Wings of Desire," starring Bruno Ganz as an angel who yearns to have the experiences of mortals after falling in love with an earth woman.
Wenders appeared onscreen for a surprise live virtual Q&A moderated by Michael Barker and Matt Zoller Seitz.
His giant visage on screen was greeted enthusiastically by the crowd.
Ebertfest 2023 concluded with a screening of 1994's Best Picture winner, "Forrest Gump," directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks as a remarkable man through whose perspective we view various major historical events of the twentieth century. Audience favorite Mykelti Williamson got a big ovation as Bubba Blue, and reminded us all about the goodness inherent in each individual.
Mykelti Williamson, who played the iconic role of Gump's army buddy, Bubba, joined me, Nate Kohn and Matt Fagerholm onstage for the Q&A afterward.
It was a fitting end to yet another unforgettable gathering of film lovers at Ebertfest. And I can tell you that Empathy (with a capital "E") was in the air.
All photos courtesy of Ebertfest, taken by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images for Roger Ebert's Film Festival.
All photos © Ebertfest Film Festival 2023.