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Ebertfest Profiles: Sketches of the 2014 Audience

As anyone who has ever attended Ebertfest can tell you, it's an event built around the people who watch the movies as much as the films themselves. When Chaz Ebert asked from the podium this year how many people in the audience had been there for all 16 years, the resulting number of hands in the air was breathtaking. The people at Ebertfest are diverse, fascinating, and committed to their favorite weekend of the year. We asked our writers this year to take the time to profile one of them for our readers.

NELL MINOW: Randy Masters is at Ebertfest because he read an article by Roger Ebert that made him angry.

It was January of 2009, and Masters saw an article by Ebert about "the worst film of 2008," the Ben Stein film advocating the teaching of creationism in science class called "Expelled." "It made me mad," Masters said. "It was not a review. He wrote a mad article and I wrote a mad comment. But his answer was so civil it stopped me in my tracks." There were 2800 comments on that piece, and Ebert was "so engaged." After a very spirited exchange, "he invited me to Ebertfest and left a pass for me. He was so gracious. All my stories about him are gracious."

Masters continued to spar with Ebert over politics. And with many of the other commenters, too, who were not as gracious. "I took the battles with everyone to get the chance to talk to Roger. It was a five year conversation."

At his first Ebertfest, he saw "The Fall," and was "blown away." Matt Dillon appeared to discuss "Nothing But the Truth." Masters experienced both "art and celebrity."

Masters said he did not mind waiting in line for hours to get a seat. "The line is part of the experience, and I always meet new people. That is my community, the passholder community."

He echoed the "empathy machine" quote from Ebert that preceded every film this year in the short film from Michael Mirasol. "I come here every year to step outside of my mind and experience, to experience otherness." One of the people he argued with most often in the comment section of Ebert's site was David Van Dyke. They became friends and attended Ebertfest together. Masters took Van Dyke to meet Ebert, who said, "You two are here together?"  Masters appreciates the movies and appreciates the chance to extend that "empathy machine" to the people he has met through the extended family of Ebertfest.

OMER MUZAFFER: “I need a cigarette.” Felix Millan sits with me in the center of the Virginia Theatre, here for his third Ebertfest in five years. We’ve just finished screening Steve James’ “Life Itself.” In the film, as in real life, Roger has passed away. Felix dedicated this week to give up smoking, but at this moment he’s trying to restrain his tears. He needs something. Perhaps his box of Goobers. The words are forming much more slowly than normal, for he usually speaks at full speed for a young college student.

Felix and three friends gained a small bit of notoriety here in 2010. He was/is convinced that his life will revolve around film either behind or in front of the camera. Ebertfest, he felt, would provide more benefit to his career than a year of school. So, he convinced his father to let him skip a week of high school and travel all the way from Coos Bay, Oregon, which is “as close to the shore as you can get, half way down the border” to Urbana. He sold DVDs to pay for travel. At the Festival, they gained attention for their story, thanks in no small part to his friendly, excited demeanor.  

This year, he arrives alone. I remember that young man with the big curly hair. Felix now is more subdued. His straight-ish hair curls around his forehead. Hints of a goatee circle a subtle smile. Still, his tucked-in, bright red “Tom and Jerry” T-Shirt reveals that the boy is still present in the man. A large butterfly tattoo spreads its wings on his forearm. Back in Coos bay, he works at a Sushi Bar. He confirms for me that the common technique of mixing wasabi with soy sauce is not proper Sushi etiquette, even though everyone does it.  

He loves Ebertfest because of the atmosphere and the access. Everyone is so friendly. The movies are so good, usually (and I recall his very frank disregard for a few of previous years’ films). But, he speaks with a bit of awe over the ease with which audience members can speak to filmmakers.  

As the Q&A for “Life Itself” completes the crowd disperses. His box of Goobers is empty. I wonder if he can keep the cigarettes away. We expect to chat tomorrow. He remains heartbroken that Roger is gone. But, it seems that he will continue to return in future years. Maybe some day he will speak on the stage, holding a golden thumb. Until then, I suspect Ebertfest gives him not just an education, but hope. More than that, he might even find some moments of solace, far away from the Sushi, and the land by the coast. 

SHEILA O'MALLEY: Nancy Crawford grew up in Champaign-Urbana and now lives 10 minutes away. "I've been here 58 years," she said.

This is her sixth year coming to Ebertfest: "It has been so fun to watch how the festival has evolved."

Crawford is the CFO of the Champaign County Alliance for the Promotion of Acceptance, Inclusion & Respect (formerly the Champaign County Anti-Stigma Alliance). The Alliance is a publicly funded coalition of different agencies devoted to challenging prejudices and discrimination as well as help fund inclusive communities. "The labels have got to go," says Crawford.  The Alliance helps people find resources so that there is a real "system of care" in the community provided for those who need it.

One of the reasons Crawford loves Ebertfest is that so many of the films Ebert chose for the lineup have to do with challenging our preconceived notions about other people, whether based on race, gender, creed, or physical ability.  Peter Tracy, who heads up the Alliance, has been attending Ebertfest for 13 years, and it was his idea to reach out to Chaz, Roger, and festival organizer Mary Susan Britt and offer to sponsor one of the films. "It seemed like a good investment," said Crawford. So every year, the Alliance sponsors one of the films. The Alliance doesn't get to select the film they will sponsor, but Roger and Chaz usually matched them up with a film that dovetailed with the underlying mission statement of the organization.

This year, the Alliance sponsored "Short Term 12," a powerful film written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, and starring Brie Larson, one of the guests at this year's Ebertfest. "Short Term 12" details the life inside a group home for kids, who have been in and out of the system for years. A slice-of-life portrait, sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, of not only the kids but the hard-working committed line staff for the home, "Short Term 12" packs a huge punch, and it does so simply, without reaching for effect, without strain.  

The Alliance's main office is in Urbana, "on the street that Roger grew up on," she said.  

Film critic Michael Mirasol, one of Roger's Far- Flung Correspondents, created the trailer for this year's festival, and it opens, movingly, with a clip of Roger talking about the need for "empathy", and how movies so often help you broaden your empathy for others. Movies help you step into someone else's shoes, to see what it is like to be someone other than yourself. Crawford referenced the trailer while we were speaking, and talked about Roger's belief in "empathy," and how that was what she and the Alliance are all about. 

JANA MONJI: Ebertfest is officially a not-for-profit event of the University of Illinois College of Media, but unofficially, Ebertfest has become an informal social event for some of the university faculty members such as Steven C. Zimmerman.

Zimmerman isn't originally from Urbana, Illinois. Born and raised in Chicago, he  attended the University of Wisconsin and then went to the Big Apple to obtain his Ph.D. from Columbia University (with a stop at Cambridge University in England to do some postdoctoral research) before he joined the University of Illinois in 1985 where he is now the Roger Adams Professor of Chemistry at the Materials Research Lab. His group focuses on the application of smart molecules and smart polymers to problems that interface chemistry and biology.

For non-scientists, the 56-year-old Zimmerman is an award-winning professor in organic chemistry who until recently served as the head of the University of Illinois Department of Chemistry (1999-2000 and 2005 to 2012), according to his profile on Wikipedia. He "oversaw a $60M fundraising campaign and secured the three largest academic gifts"  during the 2007 academic year.

Zimmerman might have been able to talk to Roger Ebert about Roger's unfinished short story if Roger Ebert have lived longer. No doubt that conversation would have been lively. With Roger Ebert gone, Zimmerman feels it's quite different seeing the movies. He and his wife, who I didn't meet, used Roger Ebert as a guide to their movie choices.

Zimmerman didn't begin reading Ebert's reviews until after he became familiar with Roger Ebert through his original TV series, "At the Movies" and then later began reading his full reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times."I always agreed with Roger," Zimmerman explained. For him to attend a movie, Roger Ebert's review had to give "at least three and a half stars." Zimmerman and his wife both thought "his reviews were always on the mark." However, Zimmerman emphasized that he and his wife rarely read the full review until after they had seen the movie.

There was only one time they doubted Roger Ebert and that was: "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."  Roger Ebert's review begins "'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' is without a doubt the best film we are ever likely to see on the subject--unless there is a sequel, which is unlikely, because at the end, the Lincolns are on their way to the theater." For that particular movie, which Roger Ebert gave three stars, Zimmerman had to read the full review and decided to pass. Not everything or everyone needs to be part of the vampire genre.

At Ebertfest (which to my knowledge has no plans to screen the Lincoln vampire flick in the near future), what Zimmerman misses is "Roger getting up and describing what was so magical about that particular movie. He would make it so salient and show how we should watch and interpret the movies. When he lost his voice that changed the character of Ebertfest" and for Zimmerman some of the magic is gone.

Yet Zimmerman also feels that Ebertfest has a personal, cozy feel that isn't present at other film festivals.  He once attended the New York Film Festival to see "Fitzcarraldo" at Lincoln Center in 1982. "The whole industry was there," Zimmerman remembers, "Herzog stood up on a balcony; everyone applauded and we left."

"I wanted an opportunity to hear him, to meet him and to ask him questions," explained Zimmerman. Roger used to describe other film festivals as people making sure they're talking with the right people and with the right group; the festivals are more about the business and less about the enjoyment of the film." Ebertfest is "about the art; there is no other agenda."

"At Eberftest, you get to interact and talk about films; you get to hear a wonderful range of questions from the audience, from deeply insightful to off the wall."

While Zimmerman feels both the New York Film Festival and Ebertfest are wonderful events, Ebertfest is the richer experience. Originally, Zimmerman would only see three or four films, but "as time progressed, we eventually blocked off our calendars" for the festival and while he began as one of the few chemistry faculty to attend, now about a quarter attend regularly, making Ebertfest an informal university social event not just for film and media faculty and students, but also for the local scientists. Next year, when you sit down at Ebertfest, you just might meet up with Zimmerman or his chemistry colleagues at the movies.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: The communal spirit that engulfs Ebertfest  doesn’t just connect people with movies. It also connects them to one another. Many a friendship has been struck over the past 16 years in between screenings.

Two first-timers at the festival met as part of a Road Scholar bus tour of about 60 seniors. Maria Nagel (pictured on the left above), a retired teacher of nuclear medicine from Bellevue, Neb., was looking at the list of tour options and realized, “I had never been to a film festival. And I always like Roger Ebert’s reviews. Maybe this is a good one.”

Nagel, who grew up in the Chicago area and watched Ebert and fellow critic Gene Siskel’s original movie review show when it first aired on a local TV station, hadn’t been in Champaign for years and figured why not try it. “I signed up without knowing anything about it.”

She did like the idea that the films selected were Ebert-approved. “I felt they weren’t going to be those darn shoot-‘em-ups  and all those car chases. What’s so ironic is that there is a film festival in Omaha every year, too,  and I’ve never been to it.”  

Jane Jegerski, a social psychology professor at Illinois’ Elmhurst University, also is a native of the Chicago area and a longtime Ebert follower.

“I grew up loving Roger,” she says. “He was a few years older than I was.  I’ve always been a big movie fan. “

Jegerski was especially glad to see "Goodbye Solo" by director Ramin Bahrani in this year’s lineup. The American filmmaker of Iranian descent, a specialist in portraits of U.S. immigrants who feel like outsiders, was a favorite of Ebert’s. The professor often uses Bahrani’s films as part of her courses. “Roger said, ‘Take the perspective of the other, learn about the other,’ and that is what intercultural studies is. “

She relished the opportunity to share her appreciation of cinema with members in her tour group. “We just hang out all day and talk about movies. It’s wonderful to see the film and then have the director and even some of the stars discuss it afterward.”

The women had disparate reactions to the title that opened this year’s festival: "Life Itself," the moving as well as humorous documentary based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir that includes graphic footage of his medical treatment after losing his voice to thyroid cancer. “I know that he wanted to be honest and very forthright,” Nagel says, “but I think a lot of that was unnecessary. I’m in the heath field, so it didn’t bother me from that standpoint. But it bothered me from a privacy standpoint. There were people cringing beside me.”

Jegerski, however, had a different perspective on "Life Itself." “I found it really powerful,” she says. “I did find it discomforting to watch Roger in his final days. On the other hand, I admire his courage for doing it. One of the things we do with intercultural studies is to look at people who are disabled and how we relate to them. It might make us feel uncomfortable and how do we get beyond that? This is a great movie to use for that. “  

KATHERINE TULICH: "My name is Joel Brotherton. I am a local resident and I have been going to EbertFest for eleven years . I attend with my partner and EbertFest is our Christmas gift to each other. We buy each other a pass and we make sure we can take the time of work every year so we can go.

The Festival is something we both love so love so much especially with the people we meet every year.  We have such an opportunity to renew friendships of people we haven’t seen since the last year. Everyone sits in the same area at the Virginia Theatre so we so we see the same people and it’s a wonderful way to connect with people . 

At the screenings we especially enjoy all the interviews after the movies. It brings so much life to the movies for us to hear the back stories of what makes the film and the passion of the players and the directors that made them. Its a wonderful celebration of film. I especially love the mix of foreign films and films that we haven’t heard of before. Its such a treat to make new discoveries. 

With Roger being from here it brings a special place to so many people here because  we’ve been touched by him for so many years so its nice to be able to re live memories of all those years of he and his family in town and that connection we all felt that you really have a friend. We lost him just a short time before last year and what touched me the most about last year was how Chaz came and said to us, that this is exactly what she needed. It was way to give her focus and a way to start the healing. It all made us feel we were together as part of the grief she and so many were feeling and that being together really helped. It’s a year on now and it is so important to continue his spirit.

The town is so excited by the statue of Roger. It has been such an energizing and loved commitment by so many people in town. It was great to have the unveiling as part of this year’s festival and I am looking forward to seeing it in it’s permanent location later on. 

I even heard there is a men’s clothing store downtown, Kuhns, that have created cufflinks with the thumbs up and thumbs down sign. I think that is a lovely tribute. I am definitely going to get a pair!"

SIMON ABRAMS: Optics expert and amateur astronomer Dean Ketelsen took his seat in the front row of the Virginia Theater's balcony section.  "In the balcony's front row, you're as close to the screen as you are downstairs," Dean speculated. He saved a seat for his wife Melinda next to him. Dean's attending Ebertfest for the first time, and it's all thanks to Melinda, who surprised him with festival passes last Christmas.

A resident of Tucson, Arizona, Dean has followed Roger Ebert's criticism from "At the Movies" to his more recent online journal. Dean grew up in smalltown Iowa, and grew to identify with Roger, a fellow mid-Westerner. "We go to the movies almost every week," Ketelsen said. "I've always been a big fan [of Roger's], particularly his liberal point-of-view."

Dean speculates that he probably didn't watch "At the Movies" as much after Roger's partner Gene Siskel passed away in 1999. But he still cherishes the brief interaction he had with Roger in the comments section of a post Roger wrote about 3D technology. "He didn't care for the 3D process, and I did," Dean said  But he responded directly to my comment, which he didn't often do."

As he waited for Melinda, Dean told me that he and his wife were most looking forward to Friday's films. He loves Lon Chaney Sr., and "Do the Right Thing," and she loves "Capote," so there was something for both to look forward to. At the time, Dean had just written about Ebertfest on "The Ketelsens!," a personal blog he and his wife have run since 2006, right around when the couple married. Topics of dicussion on the Ketelsens' blog range from film festivals to the Mexican Lunar Eclipse. After the Ebertfest wrapped up, Dean wrote: "[The Virginia Theater's] seats aren’t necessarily comfortable for my 'wide load', and the tiny bathrooms are inadequate for that many days of full-houses. [But] I accept that it is a tradition, and after the rounds of rehab it has gone through, it is a spectacular venue. It sounds like Ebertfest will continue to go on, and after our first, we’re looking forward to it again as well."

BRIAN TALLERICO: Finally, there's Jeff & Kerry Bossert, two people who took time out of one of the most important days of their lives to spend it with Roger at Ebertfest. The Bosserts were clearly excited to take an official wedding photo with the new statue of Ebert and were kind enough to allow us to get a shot as well. Jeff later told me about why he took the time to spend it with Roger:

"Until a couple of years ago, I thought of Roger Ebert like many other Chicago area natives, [just from] watching 'Sneak Previews' and 'Siskel and Ebert And The Movies'. But around this time two years ago that changed a bit. As a reporter for Illinois Public Media , I had started to produce a story previewing Ebertfest. That effort grew into something more, when I started chatting with old friends of Ebert's in and around Champaign-Urbana. I realized it made sense to use all this audio for a second story pegged to his 70th birthday."

"So I began a rewarding e-mail exchange with Mr. Ebert. He was not only thorough in his replies, but very gracious, appreciating the efforts I went through to talk about his early years (including classmates at Urbana High School and the U of I.) On his birthday, he asked that we meet up at 2013 Ebertfest. Losing him a few weeks prior was really hard. It wasn't just that an amazing writer and famous critic had commended my work, but I know he wouldn't say that to just anyone (and my wife Kerry also knew how important this was to me.) I guess I just hope to be the kind of journalist he strived to be."

Don't we all.

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