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Spotlighting Ebertfest's Festival Director and Audience Members

We are embarking on our twenty-first production of the Ebertfest Film Festival, and so I wanted to shine a spotlight on the Festival Director, Nate Kohn, and on some of our loyal Ebertfest audience members. We get attendees from all over the United States and Canada, and I asked  audience members to tell us what drew them to the festival the first time, and why they continue to return year after year. We are sharing selected versions of their most cherished moments with you. I am presenting them here in the following categories of attendance: 1-5 Years, 5-10 Years, 10-15 Years and 15-20 Years. I am looking forward to making new memories with all of you at our 21st edition of Ebertfest, running from Wednesday, April 10th, through Saturday, April 13th, at the Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois. See you there!—Chaz Ebert

First, I want to thank our Festival Director, Dr. Nathaniel Kohn

Nate Kohn was born and raised in Urbana, Illinois and attended the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Currently he is a film professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, where he also serves as the Associate Director of the George Foster Peabody Awards. We are fortunate that he has been the festival director at Ebertfest since day one.  Roger and I worked with Dr. Kohn as a cohesive team to plan the festival, and after Roger passed away, Nate and I continued to plan the festival as seamlessly as ever with the help of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, and three program coordinators: Current coordinator, Andrew Michael Hall (whose voice some mistake for Scott Connery as James Bond;  and previous coordinators-- Mary Susan Britt and Casey Ludwig.

Dr. Kohn is an award winning film producer who produced "Zulu Dawn" starring Burt Lancaster and Peter O’Toole; the independent feature "Somebodies," which premiered at Sundance (2006); "Rain," the Bahamas’ first indigenous feature which premiered at Toronto (2007); and the feature length documentary "Bayou Maharajah" that premiered at SXSW (2013). He was Executive Producer on the BET television series "Somebodies" (2008). He has served on juries and mentored screenwriters at the Atlanta, Hawaii, Kerala, and Bahamas International Film Festivals. And he is the author of numerous scholarly articles and of the book Pursuing Hollywood: Seduction, Obsession, Dread (AltaMira Press, 2006). 

As those who have been attending the film festival regularly know, Nate tries to avoid speaking at the podium as much as possible, but this year I have a plan to make sure you get to enjoy the benefit of his humor and wisdom even more than in past years. And now, here are the memories shared by our Ebertfest audiences.


Ann Wilde and Patty Urban

Ann works for a financial group in the downtown Chicago area as a Business Analyst. She was happily married but lost her husband to cancer many years ago. She loved movies as a child, remembering how much “Wizard of Oz” and “Sound of Music” made such an impression on her. Ann has 2 siblings that worked at a theatre in high school in her neighborhood. She would always hang out there to see movies. Her favorite movie is “Casablanca.” She has been a fan of Humphrey Bogart since she was a teen. Documentaries are her favorite genre, and she’s so glad Ebertfest always has them.

I met my best friend Patty in 1980. We both were working summer jobs at the same insurance company. We became fast friends and one of the things we bonded over was movies. When we met, Patty was in college at U of I and her minor was Film. She shared her love of movies with me and we had some great conversations about genres, directors and film critics. She was a fan of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s show, as I was. I favored Roger over Gene and always wanted to know what Roger had to say about the movies coming out. I was also a Sun Times newspaper reader (still am today) so I looked forward to reading Roger’s reviews. I always felt that I was getting a honest and incredibly insightful assessment of the movies he reviewed and often found that I wanted to see the movie more so after reading his opinion. I know Patty is proud that she graduated from the same college as Roger Ebert.

Over our 39 year friendship, Patty and I have seen too many movies to count. We actually saw Roger and Gene at a "Return of the Jedi" movie premiere in Chicago that my Dad won tickets to. We attended book signings for the books that Roger wrote and have a picture of us with Roger, not long before he passed that I will treasure forever. You were there too, Chaz, as you were the one who kindly took the picture of us with Roger. Patty and I always talked about going to Ebertfest. A huge regret of ours is that we never made it here while Roger was alive. It would have been a true honor to have seen Roger at the Virginia theatre, holding court and discussing films. I do, however, believe I feel Roger’s presence in the Virginia theatre.       

Patty and I have attended Ebertfest since 2015 and are never disappointed at what we see and experience. The Ebertfest audience is THE BEST!

Warren Ward 

Warren has been a financial planner for nearly 30 years and became interested in film at college. He's what’s known as a fiduciary planner, meaning he always acts in the best interests of his clients, not a brokerage company or insurance agency. Warren always felt that Roger did the same. "He presented his opinions for our contemplation – and comment – but never seemed to get caught up in the temptation to ‘paint a flattering picture’ in exchange for receiving good seats at an opening or other attention," said Warren. 

I bought Roger’s yearbook for myself every Christmas for more than 20 years, then spent a month or so going through it marking movies I needed to see. Being self-employed I always hated taking time off work simply to have fun but, as I began easing into retirement a few years ago, my wife offered me a trip to Ebertfest as a Christmas present. I was excited to accept and queued up early on Wednesday to be sure of getting a good seat. I found myself in line with a woman who lives in Champaign and attends every year. She described her preferred seat which proved to be a better choice than what I’d had in mind. Later that day I moved up to join her and now sit with her and her EF friends every year. Of course I look forward to seeing the films and hearing the stories, but I also look forward to sitting with those who are now my EF friends too. There we’ll be, just behind the house left stairs in the balcony: the design instructor, the English professor, the architect and me, the (still) semi-retired financial planner.

John McEwan 

John lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife, Meredith Zenge, and their dog, Jade. He’s originally from Jacksonville, Texas and has a PhD in geography from Louisiana State. Meredith is a U of I chemical engineering graduate originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. She was at the first Ebertfest.

2019 will be my fourth year in a row attending Ebertfest. I keep going because it is my wife's birthday gift to me (but also because I like it so much). Meredith (my wife) was at the very first Ebertfest when she was a chemical engineering undergrad at U of I, and I think she has only missed one or two Ebertfests at the most due to work conflicts. One of her college friends and that friend's mom regularly attend as well, so they are another aspect of Ebertfest to which I always look forward. There are a few small things that I like about Ebertfest:

1) Lining up rain or shine, cold or heat and waiting for several hours so that we can be some of the first few to get the best seats in the Virginia Theater. We try to get the same seats every year;

2) Seeing the same strangers' faces either in line, or in the seats around us; and

3) Eating the popcorn.

There are two stories that I like to tell people. A couple of years ago, after "Another Version of You" was screened, we happened to eat at the same restaurant as Norman Lear. And that was it. Just that cool egalitarianism that Ebertfest seems to create in the area. Similarly, last year, we kept bumping into the 'real' Dude (Jeff Dowd, upon whom the "Big Lebowski" was based),  and he was nothing like what we expected. So we brag to our friends about that. My wife will always have more stories than me, but now we get to share them.

It's just fun. I never thought of myself as a movie person, as in someone that actually cared or was interested in why a movie was made, or the kind of effort that goes into making some of the films a reality. But now I am one of those people and I like it.

5-10 YEARS

Denise English 

I will never forget "Lawrence of Arabia" as my first film at Ebertfest 2004. My mom and I were Ebertfest virgins in 2004. We both shared a love of film and film critic Roger Ebert. A restored 70mm print of "Lawrence of Arabia" on the big screen in a "real" theatre like the Virginia, might not mean much to the average person, but we knew we were in for an amazing evening. And we have experienced that same amazement over the past 9 years we have been attending Ebertfest. The title release of Ebertfest films every march is our March madness selection Sunday. 2019 will be our 10th anniversary at Ebertfest. 

Jason Greenley

Jason Greenly is a Champaign resident since 1995 and an Ebertfest attendee since 2012.  When he's not in his role as the Operations Director for Courage Connection (providing services for those impacted by domestic violence since 1971), he is writing stories or at the movies.

Somehow, in the dark while not speaking at all, I've made friends. I've made friends with people not from my community. I've made friends with people from my community I never encountered before. I make new friends every year. And every year, I spend time with them outside of Ebertfest. (Often, I've found, at events surrounding music.) These are relationships I would not have otherwise, and they enrich my life as much as (really more than) film does - and film enriches my life a lot! I come for the movies; I keep coming for the people I meet in between the movies when we give voice to the experiences we just shared.

Dan Schreiber 

I ran my first 5K on Friday night, April 25, 2014 at 7:30pm. I know this because at 8:30pm on April 25th, 2014, Spike Lee was scheduled to walk onto the Virginia Theater stage at Ebertfest and introduce "Do The Right Thing." I had one hour from the start of the race at South Farms to get my butt in a seat at the Virginia Theater. 

I only agreed to run because my high-school aged daughter made me a deal: She would run her first half marathon if I ran my first 5K. So, no way I could back out of it.  And I grew up on Spike Lee films, as he taught this middle-class white guy a lot of things I needed to know about race in America. No way I was going to miss him either. 

I had no idea how long it would take me to run, but I lined up with 7,000 other people on Oak Street. Luckily, the race started promptly at 7:30pm. Unluckily, there were 7,000 people running, and most of them were ahead of me. I didn't reach the start line until 7:35 pm.  I ran as fast as my Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby inspired body could go. I crossed the finish line at Memorial Stadium at 8:10, got slapped on the back by my daughter and wife, and didn't stop until we got to the car. While my wife sped to the Virginia, I changed clothes in the back seat and slathered on some deodorant. I slipped into a seat at 8:28 pm, just enough time to stand up for Spike's pre-show standing ovation.

Until I'm told otherwise, I will believe that I am the only middle-aged white man in the world that Spike Lee has inspired to run a 5K in less than 40 minutes.

Kathleen and Dave Porreca at Ebertfest.

10-15 YEARS

Suzanne Lewandowski 

Suzanne Lewandowski has been a resident of Champaign-Urbana for the past 12 years. She is an 8th grade language arts teacher at Urbana Middle School. She loves creative writing, reading, art, and movies (of course!). Ebertfest is a highlight of her year. Look for her in the balcony with her friend Carolyn during “Almost Famous.” As Penny Lane says, “ It’s all happening!”

Ebertfest 2009: There was quiet stillness in the theater, a collective hush fell on the crowd. After waiting and artful finagling, my friends and I were in the coveted middle section, first few rows. We leaned forward in anticipation and the eerie stillness permeated the screen as “Let the Right One In” began. There would be vampires, scary children, and there would be so much blood-in the aftermath there would be nights spent triple-checking the doors of my apartment and sleeping with the lights on. Even so... as I watched the audience watching the movie in stunned amazement, as I glimpsed the faces of my dearest friends, breathless, I realized we were a cinematic community. Our hearts might be beating crazily in fear, but we were in this together. We could handle child vampires-we could take on the world! 

It’s that power-of people coming together who love film-and want to share the experience that keeps me anticipating and attending year after year.

Patricia McNussen 

Patricia was born and raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She moved to Champaign-Urbana in 1991 for a job at Carle. She is a neuro ophthalmologist, dealing with diseases in conditions that affect vision and eye movement, optic nerve disease, and disorders of the pupil. 

Patricia loves movies, and has been attending Ebertfest since 2006.

I have attended Ebertfest since 2006, and have loved every year since!

Of all the movies, the documentaries have affected me the most. After watching "A Small Act” in 2011, I bought a copy and showed it to my small group at church. We ended up sponsoring a child in Nicaragua.

Thanks for all you do. 

Kathleen Porreca 

Kassie and Dave Porreca met in Urbana in 2003 when they were both working at Uni High. Dave had been the journalism teacher there for many years when Kassie joined the staff as Principal. After she left Uni in 2007, they began dating, with some of their earliest dates attending Ebertfest in 2008.

They got married in 2009, and will be celebrating their 10th anniversary in July. They live in Oak Park, where Kassie is an elected Park District Commissioner. (Their home is 1.9 miles from that of Kassie’s lifelong friend Anna, who attended that fateful first Ebertfest with them.) Kassie is currently the Principal of Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette, and Dave is the web/media specialist for the Elmwood Park public school district. Dave has become the proud step-dad and step-dad-in-law to Kassie’s son, J.R. and his wife Mollie, and “Pop Pop” to J.R. and Mollie’s two sons, Lukas, 8, and James, 5 months.

Here's my Ebertfest story:

My husband Dave and I will be attending our 12th Ebertfest together this year. The first time we attended together was in 2008, and we had just started dating. We lived in C-U at the time, and neither of us had ever managed to get to the festival.

By the time he asked me if I would like to attend with him, I had already invited my friend Anna to come for the weekend and I had purchased passes for both of us (hers was her Christmas gift from me).

So, Dave ended up being the third wheel for several of the films and simultaneously auditioning as my new boyfriend with Anna, my best friend since high school. Luckily for all of us, they hit it off. Dave and I were married in 2009, and even though we've moved back home to Chicago, every year we make the pilgrimage back to Ebertfest. 

Most years we are passholders, but two years we were able to be sponsors, which we loved being able to do. We may be sponsors again this year.

We have loved Ebertfest for the community that has developed among the festival attendees and the little traditions. I love bringing my chair and sitting in line for a couple of hours before the first movie each day and meeting new friends each time. I love buying my Virginia Theater travel mug and having my unlimited coffee all weekend long. We love hanging out on the plaza in between shows and running into all the people we know. We love the "thumbs up" cookies from Pekara.

Sappy as it may sound, we loved feeling like we got to "know" you and Roger through seeing you together at the festival. His essay about your love story and marriage resonates with us because, like Roger, Dave always thought of himself as a "soloist" until I came along. He was 47 and had never been married when he decided to take the plunge with me. I had been divorced for many years with a grown son. Dave became an instant step-dad, and now with our 10th anniversary coming up, he's the grandpa to two boys without ever having raised a child.

Some years, my friend Anna is able to join us for a movie or two, and we always get nostalgic thinking about that first Ebertfest the three of us enjoyed together. Poor Dave - he had no idea that he was about to embark on a lifelong commitment to both of us!

Ebertfest has made its impact on my professional life as well. In April of 2013, just a couple of days after Roger's death, I was attending  a workshop at Harvard for educators and school architects where we were put into teams and told to design a school from concept to curriculum to physical building. Freshly grieving the passing of my hero, Roger Ebert, I convinced my team to name our school the Roger Ebert Learning Community, and we designed our curriculum and mission around student voice, student expression, and social justice. It was a beautiful concept and we wowed our classmates. I had tickets to Roger's memorial the day I was coming home from that conference, but my flight was delayed and I didn't make it. I'm still upset that I was unable to be there for the celebration of his life.

Last July, I took a new job as the Principal of Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette, an all-girls Catholic high school. Within a month of starting there, I had the brainstorm of creating a women's film festival at Regina, which would feature films created by women filmmakers and/or films featuring strong girl and women characters. The first film I thought of programming for my festival was "Wadjda", which of course I had seen at Ebertfest. The festival is about to become a reality in just a few weeks.

15-20 YEARS

Dianna Armstrong 

I have been at Ebertfest from day one when Heather Rose appeared with the film about her- "Dance Me To My Song" - which was the first movie shown in a rather dilapidated Virginia Theatre on a Thursday afternoon. I have missed less than ten films over all the years. 

Other great memories:

Meeting the lead actress of "The Terrorist" (2000) in the ladies room on the 2nd floor which then had two stalls and peeling paint.  She was so excited to be at the Festival and wished the director could have attended

Sitting at a picnic table with Dusty (Cohl, who founded the Toronto International Film Festival), attired in his cowboy hat with cigar in hand

Staying till 2am to listen to the fascinating conversation Roger had with Werner Herzog

Hearing Marni Nixon sing "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" a-capella from the stage after the "My Fair Lady

I could continue but I'll end with my most poignant memory. I was in line for the handicapped bathroom and Roger got in line behind me. I motioned for him to get it front of me and he just shook his head. 

I so much miss his presence and his incredible interviews. He always listened and even played a wonderful straight man for Donald O'Connor.

Brand Fortner 

Brand Fortner is teaching professor at North Carolina State University, and adjunct professor of physics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is considered an expert in accessible scientific visualization and in technical data formats. He previously was chief scientist of the intelligence exploitation group of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, and is the founder of two scientific software companies: Spyglass, Inc, the original publisher of the Mosaic web browser, and Fortner Software LLC, a leading developer of Macintosh based scientific visualization tools.

During an early Ebertfest the lovely Australian comedy “The Castle” was screened for the festival. In one scene the main character, played by Michael Caton, commented that a trophy would go “straight to the pool room’. And then later, he said it again. And again. And yet again, as the poolroom filled with trinkets.  

The audience, and me, and Roger, loved that catch phrase, and Roger used it throughout that festival. And the next, and the next, and the next. The catchphrase became a piece of shared community. If you knew what Roger meant, you were part of the Ebertfest crowd, you were IN.  

In later years its use declined, and I was sad to see it go. So to keep its memory alive, I call my A/V den “The poolroom”, and whenever I receive something of value, I exclaim to whoever is around that it will “go straight to the poolroom." Their quizzical looks made me feel great: I was part of the Ebertfest IN crowd. And they were not.

Maureen Reagan

I shared the attached story with Roger many years ago, and I still deeply appreciate the experience, so I thought I’d share in this current call for stories. 

Dear Mr. Ebert,

I’ll begin with the easy part. As a resident of Champaign-Urbana, and a U of I graduate, and a member of the local business and arts and movie-going communities, I thank you for the care and attention you pay to all those areas. Your Overlooked Film Festival brings joy and life and a “buzz” with its presence here, and I have often wanted to thank you for making it so.

I thank you also for your reviews—beyond appreciating the guidance they give in how I spend my time and money, I simply enjoy your writing. I’m as glad to read about a movie I’m not going to see as one I am, which could say something odd about me but actually is a compliment to your content and style.

So, I have written my citizen’s thanks for your work; now let me tell a more personal story.

You and I have a fine friend in common in Dan Perrino. I vividly remember your video greeting at Dan’s Virginia Theatre retirement celebration—your stories fit perfectly the Dan I know. While he would deny credit (or blame!) for this, he helped to bring me to the university, to find money to pay for it, to stay in school, and to get the job after graduation that has allowed me to continue working in and enjoying this community.

I want to write you about another fine man whose name you don’t know, but whose friendship in a way we have in common—my father, Bill Reagan. My dad was born in April 1919 in Steelton, Pennsylvania. Money was scarce, work was hard, play was fierce, and love was deep.

The movies were essential.

Dad told me about visiting, as a boy, his Uncle Dan Reagan at his job as a night watchman on the construction site of the Steelton city building. Uncle Dan, whom Dad said “taught him how to needle,” to good-naturedly tease—an art Dad perfected with practice throughout his life—would engage Dad in arguments about who was the greater hero, George Washington or Tom Mix.

Dad had other movie heroes, too. One day a few years ago, he and I were visiting over dinner in my hometown of Ottawa, Illinois. Spurred by a comment I don’t remember, Dad mused, with remnants of wonder shimmering in his voice, “There was a movie . . . there was a movie I saw when I was young . . . the hero thrust his dagger into a ship’s sail and rode the length of the sail on that dagger. What a movie. . . . "The Black Pirate." I don’t know if anyone even knows of that movie still.” His awe at that memory shone in his eyes, and I mentally filed The Black Pirate under “to find.” Dad was a man of few wishes—or I should say of dreams and wishes and work for his family and community but of few wants for himself—and I hoped to fulfill his unspoken and perhaps even unrecognized goal of reacquainting himself with "The Black Pirate."

One night not long after, while I was cruising the video aisles of the Champaign Public Library, a VHS tape in a plain green wrapper stared back at me from the shelf. In the simplest of terms it stated its identity: "The Black Pirate." The memory was found.

On my next trip to see my parents, I took Dad the tape. We weren’t able to watch it together that weekend, but I left it with him; he and Mom watched it, amazed at its presence in their house, and mailed it back to the library.

Occasional references to the Black Pirate’s prowess occurred in subsequent conversations. And late that winter, as I read the roster of films for the Overlooked Film Festival of 2003, a familiar figure saluted me: "The Black Pirate." Eagerly I read on about this silent film, learning about its restoration and the Alloy Orchestra’s new musical accompaniment. I jumped onto the web to confirm that this was my dad’s childhood friend. And finally, when my questions were answered, I wrote to Dad, inviting him to the movies in honor of his 84th birthday.

The offer was happily accepted.

Dad couldn’t believe that his movie—a boy’s memory from a long-past time in a Pennsylvania town—was known and would be shown on a big screen with a big audience.

We talked and joked in the weeks before his visit. Well, we always talked and joked; now it was sometimes about "The Black Pirate." He told me about going to the movies with his friends— about how this crowd of boys would stamp their feet and cheer on the hero, then hiss and heckle the villains.

April came, and Dad’s Princess Isobel of 57 years, Helen Reagan, made sure he was in Champaign to enjoy his trip to the movies. In their hotel room, I pinned flowers on Mom’s and Dad’s lapels. Birthday, anniversary, raising their kids—whatever the occasion, they had earned it. We’d arranged to meet Dan and Marge Perrino for the show—those four people, what fine company.

Arriving at the theater carried the physical challenges of my parents’ ages, and I walked protectively just to the front and side of Dad, facing him, as he entered the theater and encountered diminished light and uncertain footing. But as we proceeded down the aisle, his sight grew sure and his footing eager—and here is why. I watched Dad’s face as he looked with interest and fascination at the rows of people around him laughing and talking. He was not in awe of the crowd or of the setting. He was in wonderment that all these people awaited this film that had entertained him so very long ago, that they eagerly anticipated experiencing this memory that Dad thought lived on only in his own heart and mind and those of other 84-year-old 7-year-old boys.

We took our seats with Marge and Dan and chatted in fine Ebertfest style with people around us. One woman noticed the flowers my parents wore and inquired about the occasion, in answer to which we gladly told the story. Soon the musicians took their places, the lights dimmed, and the curtain rose on my father’s childhood.

And then—well, you were there. You know how the entire theater watched enthralled. Aurally and visually, the film was gorgeous. You probably didn’t hear my dad as he whispered to me, “Oh, here! Here, did we cheer!”

And cheer we all did, as hero and heroine kissed and the lights came up on a happy ending. Dad said he loved the new musical score—always a forward thinker, even with regard to his childhood treasure—and was fascinated by the quality and beauty of the print itself—always an inquiring scientist.

Near the end of the question-and-answer session, one of our new acquaintances asked if it would be OK to mention my parents’ story. She rose and introduced my dad, who then received the largest serenade of his life as the Virginia Theatre swelled with a thousand-voice version of “Happy Birthday.” Dad gladly accepted the microphone (always an Irishman) and told a couple of his memories, commenting that this crowd was different from his 7-year-old cronies in that this crowd cheered instead of booing the long-awaited kiss.

As the session closed, Warren York took his seat at the Wurlitzer organ, and Dan Perrino, his body in pain but fueled by as much go-ahead spirit as ever, hurried down to request Mom and Dad’s song—“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” Dad didn’t hear much of it because so many people approached him for conversation. As we made our way out of the theater, one man eagerly shook his hand and referenced another festival film as he said, “That wasn’t just medium cool; that was very cool!”

With Dan clearing a walking path through the lobby, we left in high spirits. I brought the car to pick up Mom and Dad, jumping out to snap a quick picture. As Dad explored the dark ground in front of him with his cane, we joked that this was now his dagger, for riding sails of a different sort.

That was to be my dad’s last visit to Champaign-Urbana. Heart problems that had challenged him for years grew suddenly worse, and after many inquiries the questing philosopher-scientist knew that he had explored every option. With this knowledge, he was satisfied. He prepared himself and his family for his death with courage and grace. Still, when it came, we were not ready—but I believe he was. He passed away on December 26, 2003, leaving us immeasurably sadder for having lost him and immeasurably richer for having known him.

We often talked about our trip to the movies in the months following "The Black Pirate," and my family referred to you as “Dad’s new friend, Roger Ebert.” I write tonight to thank you for having given me this gift—the chance to step back in time and sit next to my father, a 7-year-old boy at the movies.

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 24th year.

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