Great movies impact those who see them, but only because great filmmakers put so much of their own lives and passions into their films.
Being in a room and hearing directors share their stories, both on the films they created and the events that gave them the inspiration behind those films, creates a bond between filmmaker and film-lover.
It becomes extremely apparent that they aren’t all that different from us. They live lives and love movies in the same way that every member of the audience does, and at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, there are not many casual movie watchers; these people are dedicated to film. The festival was April 13-17.
Directors seem to know that this is not a normal movie theatre crowd and open up to us very quickly. Sometimes the autobiographical nature of their films made perfect sense. Former college baseball player turned director Richard Linklater made a movie about a college baseball team with “Every Body Wants Some” – a perfect fit to his autobiography.
Sometimes this is less evident, as Guillermo del Toro talked about how much of himself was in the characters in his haunting ghost-filled love story “Crimson Peak.”
Hearing cancer-surviving director Paul Cox talk about his ailments after his cancer-centric movie “Force of Destiny” premiered was when I felt the audience and the filmmakers were able to connect the most. At Ebert Fest, we are all on the same level. We are there for the movies and that’s it.
Roger Ebert’s Film Festival is an annual film festival in Champaign, Ill., that stresses the community that can exist in watching movies. It was created in honor of late film critic Roger Ebert. Every year, 1,500 people come together in the breathtaking Virginia Theatre, put their lives on hold for five days and spend their money to watch movies together.
I’ve never felt more at home. You become a piece of an audience. That, as director Guillermo del Toro said, is the real gift of the festival. For once, being part of an audience began to be as important as what we were there to see. That’s simply the culture of Ebert Fest.
Ebert Fest is unlike any other film festival. There are no winners or losers. This is not done for money. Every part of the festival is a labor of love. People cannot submit films to compete like most film festivals do. Instead, each film is handpicked because it either didn’t get the recognition or appreciation it should have the first time or because it is just a great movie.
There was only one screen at the whole festival, another tradition at Ebert Fest that is out of the ordinary. Here, we spend a week in one theatre because Ebert always said there was “something special about everyone
in the same place, watching the same movie,” and he could not have been more right.
In case anyone is unfamiliar with Ebert, the best way to describe him would be like the Elvis of film criticism. His reviews were syndicated to over 200 papers and hosted “At the Movies,” a show dedicated to reviewing what was coming to theatres that week.
Ebert worked at the Chicago Sun Times for nearly 40 years and was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He grew up in Champaign, where he hosted his film festival until his death in 2013.
Being packed into a theatre reacting to things together gives this sense of camaraderie – these strangers are experiencing things with you in real time.
Laughter is better when you have 1,499 people around you laughing at the same thing. Sad or heavy moments in movies are made easier to watch because this whole crowd is engaged and experiencing it with you.
Every so often, you would catch a glimpse of a person in tears during a scene you would never think to cry in. You would hear a loud laugh during a scene that you didn’t find humorous. There were lines about human mortality in “Northfork” that made me think about life differently, while the woman behind me couldn’t control her laughter.
When a woman falls off of a balcony in “Crimson Peak,” I gasped loudly when she hit the ground, entirely involuntarily, and those around me laughed at my reaction. Most venues, people around you would be angry, but here, it’s OK to react because everyone else is too, just maybe in an opposite way. Watching how everyone reacts and interprets scenes differently speaks to the power film holds.
There is a huge positive involved with a festival being handpicked, as opposed to everything being brand new: we have not seen every movie. Tuesday, “Northfork” was screened. A hilarious dream-like movie from 2003 that got very little recognition at the time.
Friday night, Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out” was screened, and I was captivated by it. That movie has existed since before I was born. I had twenty years to watch that movie, and it took Ebert Fest to get me to watch it.
The movies of the last year also had a lot of merit. They dig to find the movies of the last year that deserve a second look. Things like “Crimson Peak” ended up being underwhelming because it was marketed incorrectly. Other terrific movies like the touching and funny “Grandma” or heart-warming documentaries like “Radical Grace” simply didn’t get the distribution they should have.
Movies can be more than entertainment. They can become a part of people’s lives. We (filmmakers, panelists and viewers alike) all got to be a part of a way of experiencing movies you can’t find outside of Roger Ebert’s Film Festival.
—Jack White, film critic