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Roger Ebert’s Film Festival lights up Champaign’s Virginia Theatre this week

Photo of green film marquee with white background. The theatre is the Virginia. Text on the marquee reads Roger Ebert's Film Festival Wednesday April 17 to Saturday, April 20. A bronze statue of a man seated with his thumbs up is in front of the theatre on the sidewalk.
Photo by Amy Penne

The Looney Tunes theme has been playing on a loop in my head for the last few days. Cue, Bugs Bunny: Overture, curtain, lights, this is it, the night of nights…oh what heights we’ll hit. On with the show this is it! It’s Ebertfest week and Champaign’s historic Virginia Theatre is ready to hit the heights with the University of Illinois College of Media’s premiere film festival. Ebertfest turns 25 this year and we’re ready to celebrate.

The full schedule can be found here, but the festival is more than a lineup of films. 

The guest speakers, informative panels, the wonderful staff at the Virginia Theatre, the concession stand, the food trucks, and our community are what make it a festival. Other notable film festivals in the country, like Telluride or Tribeca, take place across multiple venues and spaces. But we all gather at one time in one place to watch one film at a time, followed by a Q & A with the director, producer, writer, actor, musician, or the reflections of a critic or scholar. It feels more like a retreat, with movies and popcorn.

Ebertfest grew out of 1997’s cyberfest, sponsored by the U of I’s computer science department in celebration of HAL’s birthday (the U of I’s deadpan computer in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Roger Ebert attended the festival that included a larger-than-life Clarke joining via satellite from his home in Sri Lanka. Ebert was an Urbana native, U of I alum, a Pulitzer Prize winning critic from the Chicago Sun-Times, and co-host with Gene Siskel of WTTW’s At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, or as most of us remember, just Siskel and Ebert. It’s difficult to describe the impact Roger Ebert has had on filmmakers, cinephiles, or anyone who has ever enjoyed a balcony seat in a historic movie palace like our own Virginia Theatre. But this festival celebrates his love of film, his commitment to humanitarian causes and stories, and his keen eye for movies that may have been overlooked or initially under appreciated.

I spoke briefly with Steven Bentz about the upcoming festival and what the week means to him, as he approaches his 13th Ebertfest as Director of the Virginia Theatre. Like me, he is a longtime fan of the festival and lover of all things Champaign-Urbana. Bentz noted, “People who come here come because they care about film and they love the community that builds up around the festival.” “Roger Ebert,” Bentz went on, “was such a gracious human being. Even towards the end of his life when his health was so frail. He came here and inspired us all, year after year. He cared about the stories that film can reveal about what makes us human and what connects us. He was such a gentle spirit and so giving. Chaz Ebert, as well as co-founder and festival director Nate Kohn, continue that tradition year after year.”

Bentz reflected on some of his favorite Ebertfest memories. “It was a while back, but Alan Rickman was an utter delight on stage in 2007 discussing Perfume (2006) and had the entire audience in stitches with anecdotes from the film. It was the way he delivered his story. I can’t imitate him; it was Alan Rickman being Alan Rickman.” Those are the kinds of moments the festival delivers and you, literally, have to be there to experience them. 

Early in the festival’s history in 2003, Ebert interviewed Donald O’Connor about Singing in the Rain’s legacy 50 years after he, Gene Kelly, and Debbie Reynolds danced their way into film history. Ten years later, Tilda Swinton would inspire a dance-along, beautifully captured by our own Emmy-winning filmmaker and Ebertfest aficionado, Shatterglass Studios’ Luke Boyce.

I’m most looking forward to opening night because it’s a reunion. Familiar faces find each other and welcome new film buffs and aspiring artists as we all gather at the movies. Bob Fosse’s Star 80 is an interesting choice for an opening night with its complicated story of the violent murder of Playboy model Dorothy Stratton. I look forward to hearing from the two stars of the film, Eric Roberts and Mariel Hemingway about what made that such a compelling story to film. 

The centerpiece film, Malcolm D. Lee’s The Best Man (1999) promises to be a huge hit on Friday night as fans gather to enjoy Taye Diggs’ career-making performance in this tender and witty reunion film. Lee will be on hand after the film to discuss his debut feature.

Photo of a Black man in a dark suit conducting an orchestra. Five other musicians playing cello are seen in the background.
Conducting Life on Instagram

I’m also psyched about seeing two of the documentary shorts being presented, Diane Moore’s Conducting Life (2022) and Rana Segal’s The Light of Truth: Richard Hunt’s Monument to Ida B. Wells (2024). Both celebrate creativity and perseverance, and I am a sucker for an uplifting story about the importance of supporting music and the arts in schools. 

The Anvil Orchestra will be the special guests for the screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). Released in the budding era of talking pictures, you can witness Hitchcock manipulating camera angles, edits, and the new integration of sound to create his signature suspense narrative.

Ebertfest 25 will be a carefully curated mix of stories, both true and imagined, which deepen our understanding of and compassion for each other. Chaz Ebert unfailingly focuses our attention on the power of empathy and this year’s films will, no doubt, contribute to the humanitarian legacy left to us by Roger Ebert.

Ebertfest: Roger Ebert’s Film Festival
Virginia Theatre
203 Park Ave
April 17-20
Ticket information

Arts Editor at Smile Politely

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