As we prepare to celebrate the milestone of Ebertfest's 21st year, it seems appropriate to take a walk down memory lane and revisit its origin story. Premiering in 1999 as Roger Ebert's Film Festival, it set out to "celebrate films, genres and formats that have been overlooked by distributors, audiences and/or critics" including "independent, international and studio films that did not win wide audiences; overlooked formats such as 70mm; and overlooked genres such as documentaries and musical."

Located in Ebert's hometown and developed in partnership with his alma mater, Ebertfest has outlived its founder and continued to thrive in his honor, and according to the critieria he established, under the loving direction of his wife Chaz and Festival Director, Nate Kohn. The festival format has remained the same: 12 films shown over 5 days. 

Most of us have an Eberfest story or two. I remember doing a doubletake as I walked past John Malkovich sitting outside at Radio Maria. I also remember being somewhat stunned that the Norman Lear was sitting onstage at the Virginia Theatre. As a born and bred New Yorker, I can tell you that celebrity encounters have a very different vibe here. We don't have to pretend to be unimpressed. We can embrace our inner fan girls and boys and get giddy with excitement and gratitude. For 5 days, our prairie sky shines a bit brighter from that all star power.  And perhaps this is one part of Eberfest's continued success. But celebrity interviews (of both the artistic and sensationalist varieties) can be downloaded, streamed, or watched live from almost anywhere. And so, for that matter, can most films.

So what keeps us coming back to Ebertfest each year? In a word — community. The idea of watching a film on "the big screen" might seem quaint in the age of home theatres outfitted with 60-plus inch flatscreens and Surround Sound. But sharing an experience (perhaps even an emotionally transformative one) with a roomful of people who sit down as strangers but leave united as members of a unique audience — partners in cinematic communion, if you will — is more important now than ever. For that hour or two, we can focus on what we share, and put aside what divides us.

Every audience is different.  And thanks to the alchemical magic that occurs when you bring together audience, film, and live speakers, no two theatrical showings are ever the same.  It is this very notion that originally inspired Ebert to only screen one film at a time, making sure that "everyone sees the same films at the same time." 

Ebertfest is also one of the rare events that bridges the Chambana town/gown divide, "promoting a strong sense of community among audience members, filmmakers, guests, students and scholars." So whether you're a film scholar or a movie fan, Eberfest is bound to have something that speaks to you. Which brings us to the 2019 lineup. 

So while this is not my first time at the festival, it is my first time previewing it for you as arts editor. So after some careful consideration, I decided on the following approach: listing my personal picks along with additional strategies for navigating 5 days of film, all while (hopefully) keeping in mind what lies at the heart of Ebertfest — the cultivation of empathy. Ebert famously wrote that "empathy is the most essential quality of civilization,” and so it should come as no surprise that his festival uses film to allow us to better understand each other, to take a step or two in each other's shoes, and through each other's challenges and joys.  

What I'm Most Excited About This Year

This year's program provides two opportunities to experience film with a side of live music. Amazing Grace, shown at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10th, capture's Aretha Franklin's live recording of "the most successful gospel album in history" and features performances by The Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir of Champaign-Urbana. Coeur Fidele (Faithful Heart), shown at 1 p.m. on Thursday, April 11th, takes us into the "underworld of the ports of [1900's] Marseilles, France." Its groundbreaking use of graphic close-ups raises the empathy quotient, while music from the Alloy Orchestra deepens the experience of this silent film's "visual poetry."

As somewhat of a town-gown hybrid, I love studying film and going to the movies.  So as excited as I am to have old friends like Romy & Michele, Sideways, and Almost Famous back in town, I'm hoping for some deep dives into issues of inclusivity at Thursday morning's panel discussions. Starting at 9 a.m., Eric Pierson will moderate "The Alliance for Inclusion and Respect Panel: Challenging Stigma Through the Arts." At 10:30 a.m. Chaz Ebert will moderate "Women in Cinema: Hollywood or Independent, Does it Make a Difference?"

Choose Your Own Adventure or "What's Your Ebertfest Strategy?"

Reality check time. Many of us, even those with festival passes, probably don't have the option of seeing every offering at Ebertfest. So how do you choose? How do you determine your best Ebertfest naviation strategy? Here are a few suggestions: 

  • See films you've haven't seen that are outside of your typical fare. For me this might mean Bound or A Year of the Quiet Sun.
  • Go for that character-based, empathy-inspiring film you haven't seen. For me this might mean Cold War or Cane River.
  • Spend an hour or two with your favorite poet or singer, e.g. Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise or Aretha's Amazing Grace
  • Go for the guest speakers. Meet Roger's old film review partner Richard Roeper, Virginia Madsen or Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly. 
  • Spend time with an old friend among new friends.  Maybe you've already seen Won't You Be My Neighbor, but you haven't seen it at Ebertfest (community+film=empathy) and you haven't met the director. Bring Kleenex. You'll probably need them. 

In addition:

Ebertfest 2019
April 10th through 13th
Virginia Theatre
203 W Park Ave, Champaign 

Individual tickets are $16.50 ($13 for students and seniors) and can be purchased at the box office or online.

Academic Panel Discussions
April 11th
Hyatt Place Hotel
217 N Neil St, Champaign
Free and open to the public

Photos from Ebertfest website