Smile Politely

An interview with Ebertfest organizers Chaz Ebert and Nate Kohn

Two side by side headshots of Chaz Ebert, a Black woman with long hair and bangs who is smiling, and Nate Kohn, a white man in a suit wearing glasses.
(l-r): Chaz Ebert, Nate Kohn

Ahead of this year’s Ebertfest, I corresponded with Co-Founder and Producer, Chaz Ebert, and Festival Director, Nate Kohn, to learn more about this year’s lineup, past Ebertfests, and how the festival has changed – or not – through the years. Chaz Ebert, the wife of the late renowned film critic Roger Ebert for whom the festival is named, and Kohn, a Professor of Entertainment and Media Studies at the University of Georgia, have both been involved with the festival since its inception in 1999.

Here’s what they had to say:

Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: Can you talk about the selection process for this year’s films?

Nate Kohn: Our selection process changes very little. Chaz and I suggest films from among those we have seen over the past year and from multiple lists that Roger prepared over the years. We try to find films that relate to the current socio-cultural moment, and we try to find a balance among format and genre. 

Chaz Ebert: When Roger was here his suggestions carried the biggest weight, of course. But he was very egalitarian in considering my choices or Nate’s. After Roger’s death, Nate and I consider newer films as well as older films, but our choices still reflect a process of the three of us curating the selections whenever possible. 

the Marquee at the Virginia theatre, at night, reads "Roger Ebert's Film Festival April 19 thru 23"

SP: Which film or panel are you most excited about for this year’s Ebertfest?

Kohn: I am excited to see all the films with our Ebertfest audience. I never know how a film is going to play, so it’s thrilling to watch the audience watch each film. That said, I am eager to see Wings of Desire on our big screen, and I am particularly curious to see how our audience reacts to To Leslie, a film that I like a lot.

Ebert: I’m the most excited that we chose the overall theme of “Empathy At The Movies” to honor Roger! And so I am the most excited to hear our guests talk about how or why their film encourages empathy. We start with the Opening Night film Nine Days and I want to hear Edson Oda and Jason Berman tell me what was in their hearts and their heads when they came up with it. I am looking forward to Mykelti Williamson talking about Forrest Gump or Mickey Shapiro and Steven Orritt with the true Holocaust story My Name is Sara. I want to be wowed by Frank Oz and Derek DelGaudio talking about In and of Itself, or Lawrence Bender talking about Fresh. Amber Rubarth and David Heinz will discuss all the people in middle America they met when making American Folk; and what empathetic insights will Michael Morris share about To Leslie?  Rita Coburn and Brenda Robinson will share the Marian Anderson saga; and Luchina Fisher and Madeline Murphy Rabb will discuss race and swimming. The Turner Brothers will even talk about how race affects science fiction. And then we get Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics giving us the true story of how Wings of Desire came about! I can’t wait. 

SP: How has the festival changed over the years, and has anything shifted post-pandemic?

Ebert: If I had to choose one thing that is the most important, I would say keeping our film choices more diverse.

Kohn: The remarkable thing about Ebertfest is how little it has changed over the years. We found the right structure of the festival at the very beginning and almost by accident. The biggest change brought on by the pandemic is we now have reserved seating in the theatre. We did that for the first time last year, and it has worked out well.

SP: Do you have a favorite experience or panel from past Ebertfests? What’s the wildest memory you have of Ebertfest?

Kohn: Probably the Tilda Swinton dance-along, when she went down into the audience and danced with everyone to her favorite Barry White song, as an homage to Roger. 

Ebert: Ha-Ha! Those are two very different answers. The wildest, of course, is “The Dude” (Jeff Dowd) running up and down the aisle when we showed The Big Lebowski. And the most fun, hands-down, was when Tilda Swinton led a dance-a-long with our audience. I will always love her for it because she had lost her mother and I had lost Roger and we were both sitting in a lot of grief. She suggested the dance-a-long to celebrate cinema and their lives and just life itself. Our audience loved it and it lifted the spirits of everyone so much it was like a church service! 

SP: What do you think is Roger’s legacy in film criticism, and film fandom?

Ebert: I would say his philosophy about movies being an empathy machine. But I think his fans would say that the wasn’t afraid to say he loved movies of all genres. 

SP: How has your relationship to the festival / film changed in the decade since Roger’s death?

Ebert: I don’t know if there has been a real change, other than the fact that Nate and I check in with each other and with the audience to see if there is still an appetite for it. You have to realize we’ve been doing this for almost 25 years. Even though we couldn’t host the festival during the pandemic, we still planned for it and selected the films and the filmmakers and worked hard to make it happen. Wow! 25 years. I have to say the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been a great partner! And Roger would be touched that Nate is still the Festival Director.

Kohn: Not much has changed in my relationship to the festival. What is missing, of course, is Roger. I particularly miss the way he used to introduce each film, telling us why he liked each film, why he programmed it, and what we as film lovers should look for in each film. He taught us all how to watch movies, and we learned how to better appreciate some difficult films. And he did it with insights and humor that no one can duplicate. 

SP: Can you talk about the importance of this year’s theme, empathy, in the way you approach movie-going?

Kohn: The choice of the theme this year was a way to honor Roger, who viewed movies as empathy machines. Movies invite us into their characters’ lives and in good films, we become those characters for a couple of hours and, if the film is a great one, those characters and their lives stay with us for a long time after we leave the theater.

Ebert: I just want to sit in the dark and have a movie crack my heart wide open. 

SP: Of course, I have to ask: What’s your all-time favorite film?

Ebert: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

Kohn: I no longer ask my students to tell me the name of their favorite film. Instead, I ask them to tell me the name of the film that best reflects who they are as human beings. The question confounds them, and the answers give real insight into who they really are. With that in mind, the film that best reflects me is The Third Man.  

The Virginia Theatre
203 W Park Ave
April 19-22; times vary
Tickets available at Virginia Theatre and online, $15-$20

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