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I suspect there are people out there who do not follow the many frequent film reviews, blog entries, tweets, Great Movies essays and Facebook posts of the great Roger Ebert with nerdy fervor. Those people probably don’t know about Ebertfest. Once known as Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, the event is a five-day film festival hosted by the man himself and held at The Virginia Theatre in Champaign-Urbana, IL. The films are handpicked by Ebert as those that he believes deserve a wider audience, a second look or a warmer reception. I have followed Ebertfest for years, drooling at the thought of seeing films like Strozek, Baraka, or My Winnipeg on a giant screen, with the directors in the room afterwards for a Q&A. Other films, such as Shotgun Stories, Man Push Cart and I Am Love I probably would never have seen if it weren’t for their being shown at Ebertfest. So this fall, when the opportunity arose for me to attend the 14th annual Ebertfest I couldn’t help but take it!

Arriving in Champaign was… well truthfully it was perhaps a little underwhelming because I had been awake for 40+ hours and by the time I reached my hotel I was ready to collapse, and I did. But! the next day was one of enormous anticipation and excitement as I woke at 6:30 am (jetlag) and had to wait until 7pm for the first showing. I walked the 35 minutes from my hotel to downtown Champaign where I made a bee-line for The Virginia Theatre to collect my pass and pacify the need to do something to get this festival underway.  I spent the rest of the day exploring downtown Champaign and finding treasures like Aroma Cafe, Exile on Main St and  Jane Addams, the incredible maze-like used bookstore. The experience of navigating the American Midwest was a special experience all on its own. I come from a place with such a distinct cultural voice, where background chatter is the rich stuff of short fiction that I always relish an opportunity to step away from that and experience the white noise chit-chat of other places. On top of that, I have been raised on an absolute glut of American television and film,  but I have visited only New York City and even that was only a couple of days so my notion of American culture is lopsided. My concept of the Midwest is rooted so deeply in Fargo and That 70s Show that it was nice to get a more fair evaluation from the people of Champaign-Urbana, a University town that is neat rather than quaint and really quite sprawling and busy. Rather than the cartoonish drawl of the South, or the thick and distinct accents of Boston or New York, in Champaign the people have a more subtle accent, one that can be heard from Ebert himself if you take the time to go back and watch old episodes of At The Movies. In the line-up at the theatre or as the background din of cafes or pubs, it was utterly fascinating to hear the subtle inflections of an unfamiliar accent at work in the everyday conversation of the folks in this new place. Likewise, one night after a particularly late screening I was gratefully explaining to a cab driver that my walk home would’ve taken me “about a half hour” when he exclaimed “ABOOT! ABOOT! YOU GAVE YOURSELF AWAY, YOU MUST BE CANADIAN!”

I digress. On that first day 6pm rolled around and I made my way to the Virginia where there was food barbequeing in tents and people beginning to gather. To step inside the Virginia is certainly a rare privilege. Opened in 1921, The Virginia is a stunning old movie palace, ornately decorated and brimming with the sort of warmth and passion for cinema that no multiplex could offer.

Photo from Ebertfest.com

Like the days of wearing suits on airplanes, gone are the days when going to the movies was a rare thing and a community event but walking into the Virginia with such an excited crowd reminded me that the thrill of the movies really isn’t dead. I headed straight for a balcony seat, another rarity in my life, and sat letting the strangeness of my situation wash over me. Doubts that I’d been having that it was foolish or frivolous to have traveled so far just to watch movies for a week vanished instantly. I was finally attending one of the true Meccas of cinephilia.

Honeycomb ceiling in The Virginia

I was staring at a screen 56 feet wide and 23 feet tall, in a theatre renowned for its immaculate picture and sound and that alone would be worth the journey, so paired with the circumstances I was a happy guy.

The first film of the night was to be Joe Versus the Volcano, a movie which I had always dismissed as what I presumed was a boring Meg Ryan romantic comedy, and was pretty surprised to find on the schedule. Because of Ebert’s glowing endorsement I was pretty curious to see what the film was like. It just so happened that Joe Versus the Volcano is truly one of the more puzzling and joyful experiences I’ve ever had with a movie, but truthfully I could’ve been wooed by just about anything in that place at that moment. After Ebert’s lovely wife Chaz gave her opening words, the lights dimmed out, the curtains pulled open and the audience went silent. And I mean silent. Not movie theatre silent when you hear Smarties rolling around their box, teenagers talking, kids shuffling and straw slurping, this audience was quiet because this movie is why we were there. The were no cellphones either, no little blue lights beaming out of laps, just darkness and silence. This was an amazing crowd to watch a film with and though I was sitting there as alone as I’ve ever been, I felt the whole time as though I was watching the film with everyone there.

I’ll spare the play-by-play of watching each film. Some, like Joe Versus the Volcano, Higher Ground, A Separation and Big Fan were powerful experiences of their own merit which I will review separately here sooner or later. Others, like Kinyarwanda or Patang are fine films but they felt unfinished and left me wanting more. The films I had seen before, Terri and Take Shelter were so much more when viewed in this setting that I think my already favorable opinions of both films were improved through their effectiveness on this huge screen. After each film, some of those involved would take to the stage for a panel discussion and a Q&A section. The panel discussions were frequently enlightening, particularly the one following Take Shelter in which director Jeff Nichols offered insight into his method while the mostly quiet Michael Shannon made infrequent but hilariously bizarre jokes. The discussion following Terri was equally as interesting and star Jacob Wysocki received the only standing ovation in the entire festival that wasn’t for Roger Ebert. Following On Borrowed Time, a documentary about director Paul Cox, the discussion featuring Cox introduced me to the director who seems so original and so talented that I felt a tinge of embarrassment for not having encountered him before but a gush of excitement that I would seek out his films once I got home. The Alloy Orchestra, which features Roger Miller of Mission of Burma, hosted Wild and Weird in which the trio performed a live score for a collection of avant-garde treats from the earliest days of cinema. The Alloy Orchestra are the best at doing this, and their scores for films like Metropolis, Nosferatu and Man With a Movie Camera have become standards in their own right. The festival was capped off with Citizen Kane played with Ebert’s commentary. This is one of the 6 commentary tracks Ebert recorded before he lost the ability to speak, and he said that he wanted to play this one at Ebertfest as a way to have his voice heard at the festival one more time. For those who have seen Citizen Kane, the notion of seeing it under such perfect conditions is a thrill. Most probably haven’t taken the time to listen to Ebert’s commentary track but I urge you to do so, it has been one of my favorite commentary tracks for a while and it is certainly one of the most enlightening ever recorded.

Hearing Ebert’s voice fill the theatre added an extra emotional layer to the mood in the room, even for a newbie like me. It may be so that he will not speak at that festival but there’s no mistaking that his presence is felt in every moment of Ebertfest. He picks every film, organizes the schedule, orchestrates it all. Who else could have a studio put together a brand new HD transfer of a movie like Joe Versus the Volcano just to be shown at their own personal film festival? For the last half of the festival, he sat in the back of the theatre in a giant leather chair and would send people running up on stage to read his handwritten notes to the audience. I wanted to meet him, to shake his hand but he was so hassled between each film that I never wanted to add to his commotion. On the second last day, some new friends I had made urged me to go and speak to him, they reminded me that not meeting Ebert now would be like making it to the end of the Yellow Brick Road and then just wandering the streets of Emerald City before heading back home. Just before Take Shelter played I went  back and approached his assistant.  Certainly nervous, I wasn’t sure what to say… how do you explain to a complete stranger that he’s important to you? More importantly how do you explain that AND not sound like a scary creep? “Excuse me, would it be an appropriate time to say hi?” I asked and he waved me over excitedly and grabbed my hand. In my mind I explained where I came from and that I was here just for the festival. I told him that I started a blog and that I’m beginning my Master’s in Film Studies this fall and I was directly inspired by him to do both. I thanked him for the experience and said goodbye. Surely what really happened is that I got really sweaty and babbled that information at him as nonsense, but he was so kind and so warm and he held our handshake the whole time. Some friends have asked and no, I didn’t get a picture and no I didn’t get an autograph but what I did get was a real handshake from a personal hero.

Photo from Ebertfest.com

Going to Ebertfest was real wish fulfillment, I finally got to be in that place where once a year I’ve wanted so badly to be. I saw great films in the the ideal setting, surrounded by the perfect audience. I made two new friends, Christian and Jon, who invited me to join them for coffee or dinner between films when we would chat about the festival, the films and get to know each other. Their kindness most certainly changed the shape of my experience for the better. I got to travel, I got to explore a new place, I got to eat a Steak n’ Shake Double & Cheese Steakburger. I’ve been asked if I’m going back next year and it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to go back but here’s hoping.

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