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Ebertfest Announces First Slate of Films, Guest Frank Oz and Theme of “Empathy at the Movies”

A diverse selection of films that generate empathy have been curated for the 23rd Annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, running Wednesday, April 19th, through Saturday, April 22nd, at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois. Ebertfest, co-founded and hosted by Chaz Ebert, will honor the 10th anniversary of her husband Roger Ebert’s death by screening films and bringing filmmaker guests who exemplify the theme of “Empathy at the Movies.”

Roger Ebert, a renowned film critic, University of Illinois journalism alumnus, and Urbana native, spoke often about the power of cinema and its ability to transform perspectives. Chaz said his guiding principle was empathy. 

“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” said Roger Ebert. “If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears.” 

“Empathy can be generated through pathos and humor and by sharing communal experiences,” said Chaz. “This year in Roger’s memory we will gather together in what Roger has called the temple of cinema to reaffirm our connections to each other.”

Joining this year’s Ebertfest will be director Frank Oz, known for creating and performing many beloved characters on “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street,” bringing to life Yoda in the “Star Wars” series, and directing numerous films, from “Little Shop of Horrors” to “What About Bob?” and “Bowfinger.” “We are eager to welcome this special guest whose work is the very embodiment of empathy,” said Chaz.  

Oz will accompany the screening of his film Derek DelGaudio’s “In & Of Itself” (2020), a biography that explores identity and illusion while the storyteller and magician attempts to answer, “Who am I?” The film originated as a play written and performed by DelGaudio and directed by Oz, which ran Off-Broadway for 72 weeks. Derek DelGaudio and Janet Pierson, director emeritus of SXSW Film Festival, will also be in attendance. 

The German cinematic masterpiece “Wings of Desire” (1987) 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?’” Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, will attend.

Directed by Emmy and Peabody Award-winner Rita Coburn, “Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands” (2022) 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

Director Rita Coburn and producer Brenda Robinson will attend. Following the screening will be a live performance by Viveca Richards, an opera soprano from the University of Illinois Lyric Theatre. 

After a series of award-winning short films and music videos, Japanese Brazilian writer and director Edson Oda delivers a heartfelt vision on the meaning of life in his film directorial debut, “Nine Days” (2020). The ultra-original American fantasy drama that invites viewers to reconsider their worldview was a winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. In the RogerEbert.com review, Oda was praised for centering the film 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?” 

This year's selection of from the audience choice movie poll is Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953). In Roger’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.” An expert on Ozu’s work will attend.

Continuing Ebertfest’s tradition of hosting a live music performance with a silent film, the Anvil Orchestra, based in Vermont, will accompany the German Expressionist silent horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920), directed by Robert Wiene. It depicts the story of an insane hypnotist who uses a somnambulist (a sleepwalker) to commit crimes. The Anvil Orchestra—fondly named after a misspoken introduction by Roger Ebert at the Alloy Orchestra’s first Ebertfest appearance—is comprised of two-thirds of the Alloy Orchestra, which has since disbanded. 

Additional films and guests will be announced in the coming weeks. Passes to see all films with reserved seating are available to purchase online or at the Virginia Theatre box office, 203 W. Park Ave., Champaign, 217-356-9063. Individual movie tickets will go on sale on April 3. Ebertfest is sponsored by the University of Illinois College of Media and Chaz Ebert.

Note: Anyone interested in supporting the event as a festival sponsor may contact Molly Cornyn, the festival’s project coordinator, at mcornyn2@illinois.edu.

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