Annually, Roger Ebert’s Film Festival is brought to us by the University of Illinois College of Media. It packs the streets with film buffs for an hour or so in between showings, and injects our small town with a little bit of chi-chi magic and valuable tourist dollars. Each year the festival has new themes, new hosts, and new improvements, as well as giving the locals some new opportunities (like last year’s SideShow Gallery pop-up). This year is no different in the fact that it is a little bit different. 

Themes

It’s often easy to perceive a theme running through an Ebertfest’s selections, and this year is no different. The films themselves are clearly pointing a large neon sign at female directors, talent, and issues. As always, the film selections embrace diversity, featuring casts and directors of color. Chaz has announced that this year the entire festival is dedicated to four principles: empathy, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness.

Dedication

It’s no wonder that the local organization that will share that dedication is the Alliance for Inclusion & Respect, a local non-profit working against the stigmatization of mental illness and disability. AIR sponsors one film each year, which deals with these topics. Last year, it was the biopic of Brian Wilson called love&mercy. This year, it will be the documentary about basketball player Chamique Holdsclaw, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. AIR is also responsible for the art show and sale that is held outside the theatre on one day of the fest. This is an enviable chance for local artists to get their work seen and even purchased by people both in and outside of our community.

Tech

C-U is incredibly tech-forward, and Ebertfest is beginning to reflect that. First off, there was the huge facelift at Ebertfest.com provided by Surface 51. To go along with the new look, there are some new features, too. All of the panels, both on and off-site, will be streaming live on the website. There will also be real-time blog coverage brought to you by the rogerebert.com bloggers like Matt Fagerholm and Sam Fragoso. Then there’s an iPad app devised by Shatterglass Studios which contains past schedules and interviews. (I’m an Android, so I can’t tell you if it has any tools for navigating the current year, but it still sounds cool.) (THIS JUST IN: Forced Perspective Entertainment has created an Android app which is available on Google Play and is updated with 2017's info. Thanks, Andrew Stengele!)

Guests

You talk to anyone who’s been in and engaged in this town for a few years, and they will all have an Ebertfest guest-celeb story. Whether it’s spotting Kate Bosworth at the Piglet or slowly realizing that yeah, that is Spike Lee sitting next to you on the barstool at Guido’s, celebrities are a big draw of the fest. This year’s guests are a little more niche – primarily appeal to the fully-immersed film buff – but if anyone can run slobbering at a cinematographer, it’s an Ebertfest attendee. (No offense meant, I’m totally picturing me trying to talk to Caleb Deschanel. Be cool, man, be cool.) But part of the draw of Ebertfest is that the guests are not required to give interviews or shill or red-carpet anything. They’re just hear to watch and talk about films, like us. I am a little concerned about the fact that there aren’t any HUGE names this year, like Jack Black or Charlie Kaufman level, and what that means for attendance.

Panels

Praise be, even though Ebertfest is technically a University event with academic merit, they finally made the decision to stop holding the panels on campus. Instead they will be held at the Hyatt Place Hotel, within easy walking distance of the theatre. You can find the full lineup at the Ebertfest website or our SPlog, but this year’s topics really drive home the dedication’s theme of empathy, which of course has always been Roger’s philosophy. I always felt like I was missing a little something due to my staunch hatred for really expensive parking tickets combined with a practical desire to not hit any co-ed pedestrians. (My impractical desire, however, would make me late to the screenings) Festival organizer Casey Ludwig let me know that is was a practical decision for them, too, especially considering that the Illinois Marathon is in town this weekend.

Access

People don’t think about this, but the Virginia looks like an old building which might not be so ADA-friendly. In fact, most historical buildings are exempted from meeting regulations, but our theatre has taken every measure to provide seating and bathrooms that can be reached by as many people as possible.

The real access issue this weekend is going to be the marathon, so be sure to know the route! Knowing the times will help, too. If you are staying downtown, you should be golden, but even getting to the Hill Street Parking Deck will require you to cross a couple route paths – leave extra time. The races begin at 7 a.m. and the first panel begins at 9:30 a.m., some planning will be required, especially if you are coming from Urbana or driving in from out of town. 

Not to mention, there’s a protest March for Science in the evening (5-7 p.m.) which will restrict the sidewalks, and oh yeah, it’s Record Store Day, so street parking will be premium.

Food

Don’t worry, though, you won’t need to drive to get something to eat. If you’re a die-hard don’t-leaver, Ms. Ludwig assures me there will be options right in the street out front, as has been tradition for the past few years. Charity’s Catering is bringing the banging barbeque under the tent, Hendrick House food truck will of course attend, and Caribbean Grill will also be available.

Of course, if you prefer a little break and some human interaction and delicious libations, there is no shortage of options within walking distance for all tastes and budgets. Thankfully, locals know there isn’t any true “fast food” nearby, but I consider that an advantage. Any of the locally-owned cafes will be have some grab-n-go options that will actually taste fresh and contain real vegetables.

Local ops

Let’s face it, three full days and two half-days is a long time to sit, even with stretch-breaks. Maybe you have a festival pass but documentaries aren’t your thing. Maybe you just need some fresh air. Aside from the already mentioned events, there is always something going on in town. Hit up Smile Politely’s Weekender feature for some ideas about what to do before, after, or during. It’s Earth Day and Record Store Day, as well as the weekend in a college town known for its music scene. Have at it.