A long-time establishment in Champaign-Urbana’s arts and culture scene, Roger Ebert’s Film Festival (or Ebertfest, as we know it today) is turning eighteen years old this year. Held annually at the historic Virginia Theatre in Downtown Champaign, this festival spans five full days and features films from across many different decades, informative panels on all aspects of filmmaking, and plays host to many renowned guests from all different aspects of filmmaking.

As most all of us already know, the late Roger Ebert, founder of Ebertfest, was widely known as the go-to film critic over the course of his 45+ year career during which he famously wrote film reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times. His reviews have been syndicated to over 200 newspapers and publications, and Ebert is famously the first ever film critic to have received the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, which he was awarded in 1975.

Roger Ebert was born and raised in Urbana, and attended the University of Illinois here, as well. His festival was initially titled Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival when it was created in 1999 and not only served to showcase his perhaps underrated hometown, but also the specific films that he himself appreciated but felt were overlooked and/or underrated at the time of their release. From the festival’s inception, it has never taken submissions. Although “overlooked” has been dropped from the festival’s official title, the festival’s philosophy is still very much that of supporting the under-recognized and underappreciated. Since Roger Ebert’s unfortunate passing in 2013, his wife Chaz Ebert and festival director Dr. Nathaniel Kohn have taken over the festival proceedings. We at Smile Politely had a chance to talk to Director Kohn to find out more about what we can expect at this year’s festival.

SP: What does the process of choosing films to screen at the festival look like? What do you specifically look for in a qualifying film?

Dr. Kohn: Chaz Ebert and I are constantly looking for films that we would like to screen in the festival.  We do not accept submissions of any kind. For older films, we consult various lists of films that we drew up when Roger was alive to determine if there is a particular film that might resonate with what is happening in the world at the present moment. This year we selected a number of films from those lists, including The Third Man, Norfolk, Blow-Out, and Eve’s Bayou. Then we look at new films that have been overlooked for one reason or another that meet the general criteria that Roger established for a festival film -- films that reflect on the human condition and promote empathy.  
  
SP: The guests their participation in panel discussions are an integral part of Ebertfest; how do you decide on panel topics? Do you find that your invited guests enjoy participating in these sorts of panels?

Dr. Kohn: Panel topics are inspired by the films that we have selected for the festival and on the guests that we have invited to the festival. This year, our topics are: empathy, women, and diversity in Hollywood—all questions that are in the news at the moment. Additionally, we have invited several important female filmmakers to the festival this year in order to champion women in the arts. Almost all festival guests like serving on our panels; filmmakers are great talkers and rarely pass up opportunities to opine on almost any subject. And we, of course, love hearing what they have to say.  

SP: Tell me about the festival this year. What are you most excited for in particular? Is this year going to be any different than years past?

Dr. Kohn: The festival never really changes. We always show 12 films and have four panels. The format worked from the very beginning, and we see no reason to vary from it. We are thrilled that Guillermo del Toro will be with us; he is one of the great directors working today. And I am pleased that we have so many female filmmakers attending this year’s festival, from directors Kasi Lemmons and Rebecca Parrish to actor Nancy Allen to legendary British crew member Angela Allen. It is also wonderful to have Paul Cox back with us. It's going to be a great festival.  

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The 18th Annual Ebertfest is going to take place at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign from April 13th-17th. To find out more about the festival, the screening schedule, and to get tickets for the shows and events, visit the dedicated website for more information.

About the writer, Carly Smith:

Carly is a current senior studying English at U of I. She spends her time watching campy horror movies, playing music, and hanging with her dog Archer. You can generally find her making impulse buys at Target or on Twitter @snarlyjones.