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The Ebert Fellows Go to Ebertfest 2024

Editor’s note: Every spring we say farewell to the latest trio of University of Illinois College of Media Roger Ebert Fellows, whose work includes reports filed for rogerebert.com. The 2023-24 Fellows–Hanna Brazas-Mata, Caroline Tadla and Stephanie Wayda—talked to Ebertfest participants late last month about what the Virginia Theatre-located festival, a 25-year tradition, offers that others never will.


CAROLINE TADLA

Subject: Cash Robinson, University of Georgia graduate student and filmmaker

One thing that makes Ebertfest special is the wide range of attendees it draws, while maintaining an unusual essence of intimacy. Veterans or first-timers, local or out of state, everyone is welcomed with open arms.

Robinson came from Athens, GA., for his second Ebertfest at the invitation of festival director Nate Kohn, one of the grad student’s UGA professors. “He’s a really good guide and supportive mentor,” he said of Kohn, in between Ebertfest screenings. “I wanted to come just to be with him and see some films.”

At UGA, Robinson has pursued a Masters in Screenwriting, while creating several of his own films which can be found on his blog. Over dinner with Robinson’s fellow UGA classmates, also attending Ebertfest, Robinson joked about his nerves as he prepared for an on-stage, post-screening panel discussion following the 1929 Alfred Hitchcock film “Blackmail,” accompanied by the two-man Alloy Orchestra. We talked while Robinson and his colleagues awaited the arrival of Tres Leches cake served at the wonderful Big Grove Tavern, a five-minute walk from the Virginia Theatre.

“It's nice to be at a festival that isn’t about competition or anything,” Robinson told me. “It's more just about connecting with people, sharing the experience of films, and how they change people's lives and allow them to grow. It’s really relaxed. Just a nice calm time.”

I asked him about his favorite Ebertfest films this year, and he adjusted his wire-rim glasses while taking some time to think. “So far I've really liked ‘The Teachers Lounge’ a lot. I think it’s a really strong film and also a very brisk and short one. I also liked ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’ That was the first time for me, actually. It really affected me.”

Robinson assured me the eight-hour round-trip drive from Athens to Champaign, in a car crammed with peers, was worth it. He hopes to come back next year.

HANNA BRAZAS-MATA

Subject: Becky Rowe, longtime Ebertfest attendee, daughter of festival sponsor and donor Betsy Hendrick

Over dinner, on the final night of Ebertfest 2024, I met Rowe and her mother. This year Hendrick was honored for her continuing support of the festival; she was also a longtime friend of the late Roger Ebert, and worked with him on the News-Gazette (covering Champaign-Urbana). She was in college at the time; Ebert was still in high school.

Rowe told me her mother was deeply moved by his passing. “Truth be told, when Roger passed away I was also really touched by his loss. I had a hard time coming back to the festival the next year. That sounds weird, because I didn’t hang out with Roger a lot. We were lucky to be around him a little bit. He had a wonderful sense of humor because his intellect was so sharp.”

Rowe has followed in her mother’s footsteps working as a crisis counselor for the University of Illinois Police Department. Some nights, she told me, she’s on call as a social worker; other nights, she’s driving alongside officers in a patrol car down the party streets of Champaign, making sure people are drinking water and getting home safely. Rowe described the festival as an important collective experience. She previously worked as a volunteer driver for the festival. In her years getting guests from here to there, she heard plenty of stories about Ebertfest’s uniqueness as a movie gathering place.

“When iPhones first came out,” Rowe told me at dinner, “this was in the wayback times. There’s this actor, Joe Pantoliano. His nickname is “Joey Pants” and he's been in all these movies and he brought a mental health movie (“Canvas,” which played during the 2008 festival). He’d just gotten his first iPhone.

So we’re sitting outside the theater, at a picnic table, and he comes over and sits down with us. And part of (me) was going ‘Oh my God that’s Joe Pantoliano!’ and then he sits next to me, with his iPhone. And we’re just talking about his iPhone and he’s, like, ‘Hey, check it out! Look what it does!’ And that’s (Ebertfest’s) family feeling for you.”

Rowe added: “I also tell people about Annabelle Ebert, who was Roger Ebert’s mother – Annabelle babysat me! That’s the family feeling, you know. The Champaign touch.”

STEPHANIE WAYDA

Subject: Lisa Cortes, Ebertfest visiting director of “Little Richard: I Am Everything

What is something you're passionate about that you try to incorporate in your work? A: I'm not imposing my ideas about a person or world, but really finding the those who have the lived experience to share it. To paint the colors to give the contents and to really give voice to the subject.

A lot of my work deals with hidden histories, people that have made such incredible contributions. But we don't know, recognize and value what they have done…people contain multitudes, so you don’t want to be one dimensional in your examination. So I'm really passionate about showcasing these people, and the fullness of the lives led and the worlds they lived within.

How do you feel about coming to Ebertfest, and what does it represent to you?

You know, I kind of heard about Ebertfest as, you know, “there’s this festival, it’s curated Films, it’s in Champaign, Illinois.” But I had no idea of the richness of the experience. Once you come here and spend several days in this incredible theater, watching all different kinds of films–I mean we just saw a silent film directed by Alfred Hitchcock (“Blackmail”) with live accompaniment by Alfred Hitchcock, who I adore so much. “The 39 Steps” is one of my favorites of his. And “Psycho.” But there’s always new discoveries. 

Nothing could’ve prepared me for the range of films (at Ebertfest). I love going to lunch and meeting an 82-year-old man from Chicago, who comes here every year. His wife couldn’t make it this year because of her health, but he's reporting back to her about the films, and taking pictures of the filmmakers. There’s a really hearty engagement.

It reminds me of when I was in college. There was an art-house cinema at my university that I probably went to, like, five nights a week. Eric Rohmer films, Fellini, all these wonderful auteurs. It sparked my love of films and filmmaking. [Coming to Ebertfest] means a certain emotional resonance has been re-engaged for me. It’s re-ignited my film DNA in a way that doesn’t always happen when you’re watching things at home.

On a streamer, oftentimes I’m watching something for work. But this is not work. This is joy.

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