Smile Politely

Deciphering Ebertfest for the future

As some one who wrote a doctoral dissertation on Africana Film Studies at UIUC, I am always excited to peruse the films that populate the annual Ebertfest schedule. Over the years, I have attended Ebertfests 2003, 2007, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018 and now 2019.  As I pondered this year’s list, I wondered:

Beyond the economic gains for local vendors, how does Ebertfest impact local communities? What connections exist between Ebertfest films and Champaign Urbana/Central Illinois audiences in particular? How might Ebertfest expand audiences and increase audience engagement with Ebertfest in the future?

Examining the Ebertfest mission and value of local festivals

According to the Eberfest website, Ebertfest was:

founded in 1999 by the late Roger Ebert, University of Illinois Journalism graduate and Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, Roger Ebert’s Film Festival (Ebertfest) celebrates films that haven’t received the recognition they deserved during their original runs. The festival gives these films and their filmmakers a well-deserved second look. While Roger passed away in April 2013, his influence on the Festival continues under the leadership of Chaz Ebert, Roger’s beloved wife, business partner and fellow film-lover, is the festival co-founder, producer and host.

We understand the founding vision for Ebertfest, but how do communities typically benefit from such festivals? 

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) affirms film festivals’ value for promoting new talent, reaching new audiences and boosting the local economy. Furthermore, film festival scholar Elisa Costa Villaverde writes in her work “Film Festivals and Cinematic Events Bridging the Gap between the Individual and the Community: Cinema and Social Function in Conflict Resolution” that there is profound value in the engagement between film and film goers as they grapple with the film in the post-screening discussions. She writes:

A screening followed by a debate with the presence of some of the film agents and with wide media coverage means an even more intense intellectual exercise which usually involves growing a collective awareness of the need for social reflection, as well as the identification of the causes of clash.

Yet, media anthropologist Daniel Dayan reminds us of the very contested and multifaceted nature of film festivals themselves. He described the festival as a set of divergent performances (by filmmakers, distributors, festival organizers, journalists, the audience, etc.) and argues it is not limited to visual display, but above all a “verbal architecture” that is “made up of different versions, relaying different voices, relying on different sources of legitimacy.”

In regard to the three arguments presented by MPAA, Costa Villaverde and Dayan, my attempt to examine Ebertfest by contacting key stakeholders has made me most aware of the kinds of legitimacy that mark one’s access to information (or the lack thereof) about the Ebertfest film festival.

Seeing ourselves on screen? 

As mentioned above, the Africana films offered at Ebertfest always pique my curiosity. However, this time, I decided to actually count the Africana films screened by Ebertfest to better understand how many films have actually been offered in 21 years. This year’s Africana film offerings — Amazing Grace, Cane River, and Maya: And Still I Rise — help to round out the 32 Africana films with predominantly Black casts (22 African American titles and 10 Continental African titles) of the 261 total films screened in Ebertfest since 1999. Note: These totals are not based on official data provided by Ebertfest, but based on my tabulations from “Past Festival” pages of films scheduled to screen that year as listed on the Ebertfest website.

Interestingly, under Mrs. Chaz Ebert’s leadership, the festival has become more inclusive of films by African American filmmakers. During Roger Ebert’s tenure, more films from continental Africa, i.e. Senegal, South Africa, and Kenya.

Consequently, I contacted the Africana filmmakers, panelists, guest performers, and festival partners participating in this year’s festival. I wanted to find out why these films (Amazing Grace, Cane River, and Maya: And Still I Rise) should speak to Central Illinois communities and Central Illinois Africana communities specifically.

Unfortunately, the only response I received was in regard to Amazing Grace. Andrew Michael Hall, Project Coordinator for Roger Ebert Film Festival, reported that “the main reason for screening Amazing Grace is that our festival organizers, Chaz Ebert and Nate Kohn, got the chance to see an advance screening of the movie and felt it had to be at Ebertfest.” Additionally, Hall stated that:

Ebertfest is a nationally recognized event, with coverage in media from the London Times to the L.A. Times, but it is also very much a festival about community. Incorporating the MLK Community Choir recognizes Ebertfest’s desire to build community in C-U, but also recognizes the shared mission behind Ebertfest and the foundation of this choir. Through Rev. Claude Shelby and through beloved choir directors like Willie Summerville, the MLK day celebration and its choir are an organization that reaches out to the rest of the community with the empathy that also characterizes Ebertfest.

Beyond Hall’s response related to Amazing Grace, it remains unclear to me how the other Africana films are relevant for Central Illinoisans broadly, and Black Central Illinoisans in particular. Furthermore, given our recent public debates in the lead up to our April 2nd local elections about issues as varied as regional gun violence, drug trafficking, sex crimes and child abuse, unending bank robberies, recovery from two years of state budget woes, school tumult and violence, aging infrastructure, flooding woes, post-incarceration restoration for individuals, affordable housing challenges, etc. I look forward to considering whether or not the films of this year’s festival articulate to any of our local realities (while fully understanding that many attend film festivals to escape such weighty local matter). 

Whose Ebertfest? 

In the Independent Filmmaker’s Project (IFP) article “Leveraging Economic Impact to Secure Support for Film Festivals,” they remind would-be-film festival planners: “Don’t forget to tell your story: educational programs, if you have them, your senior discounts, free screenings you do for the community, other events that happen around your festival like concerts or art shows, and if you are not sharing the wealth with such groups, do! Be a leader among the art groups in your city.”

Consequently, after reviewing the 2019 Ebertfest sponsorship brochure, I have asked additional questions about the Ebertfest community outreach for this year:

  1. Are there any Ebertfest-related free film screenings at UIUC or anywhere else this year?
  2. Are there discussions between film critics and elementary or high school students this year?
  3. I noticed that there has also been a reduction in panels this year from five to six in recent years to two panels for Ebertfest 2019. What explains the reduction this year?
  4. Additionally, I noticed that the panels have been relocated from the UIUC campus to downtown Champaign? Why did this occur?

Again, I did not receive responses to these questions at the time of this publication.  

Possibilities for broader Ebertfest outreach?

Interestingly, while researching Ebertfest, I came across the Wisconsin Film Festival, happening right now on the University of Wisconsin-Madison and nearby venues, where they screen 153 short and feature-length films at five different venues locally.

Let me be clear: The point of comparison is about expanding the number of film screened, as I understand that the sponsorship, budgets, and priorities individual festivals vary widely.  However, I mention the Wisconsin Film Festival to draw readers attention to some of this  festival’s outreach activities underwritten by their sponsors that might be worth Ebertfest’s consideration. 

One component of the Wisconsin Film Festival is the “Big Screen, Little Folks” series, a series with films specially curated for young people — which includes curriculum guides for parents, teachers, and guardians; film screenings at local children’s hospitals; free tickets and bus rides for students — all done with the intent to “meet the next generation of film enthusiasts!”

Other Wisconsin Film Festival outreach activities described include Sneak Peek activities with local four local libraries, a modestly priced Opening Night kickoff, free Afterglow events where the community can gather and meet with fellow filmgoers, filmmakers, panelists and sponsors, and free events for youth including a stop-motion animation workshop, and a free family friendly, post-screening workshop in collaboration with the UW-Madison African Studies Program.

Again, there are many ways of hosting festivals. However, festivals like the Wisconsin Film Festival seem to foster spaces for local audiences, not just sponsors, to consider the films in community before the festivals and engage with fellow films enthusiasts during the festival. Additionally, there’s a cultivation of future generations of filmgoers at the festivals to engage in films and filmmaking with their families.

Hall reported that “Ebertfest is a nationally recognized event, with coverage in media from the London Times to the L.A. Times, but it is also very much a festival about community.” However, I would offer that more outreach activities, more engagement across the Champaign-Urbana community, more film/media offerings that attract diverse youth, young adults and families with children, and more responses to queries from non-sponsor media might better reflect Ebertest the “community” ethos that Hall speaks of. Such steps would allow Ebertfest to thrive for 21 more years and beyond.

I hope this examination will serve as a useful reflection on just a few aspects of Ebertfest’s 21 year history in our community. I look forward to seeing you at Ebertfest 2019.

Photo by Julie McClure

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