URBANA – When Roger Ebert's "farflung" correspondent Geraldo Valero of Mexico City was told he would stay in student housing during Ebertfest, he figured he would be sleeping in "student bunkers."
Instead, "Roger has been more than generous letting us stay here," Valero said during a meet-and-greet breakfast on Thursday at the Illini Union.
However, each of the seven "far-flung correspondents" – Ebert features their video and text movie reviews on his website – paid their way here. An eighth, Egyptian Wael Khairy, couldn't make the first day of the festival; his flight was canceled due to the volcanic ash over Europe.
On Thursday, Chaz Ebert told Khairy's Internet colleagues he might be able to make Ebertfest after all.
"He's on standby right now," she said to cheers. "He could not stand to see that you guys are going to Steak 'N' Shake and went to a reception at the (University of Illinois) president's house."
Chaz and her husband had entered the meet-and-greet to applause from the bloggers and members of his new online Ebert Club, as well as the comment, "The Grand Poobah," from Valero.
The Mexican is shaping up as the humorist of the blogger group. Omer Mozaffar, a professor of religious studies at the universities of Chicago and Loyola, has become its unofficial leader.
"I think I speak for all of us when I say I've been humbled to be chosen as one of Roger's correspondents," said Mozaffar, who was born in Pakistan and moved to Chicago when he was 18 months old.
Ali Arikan, a blogger from Turkey, is appreciated for having the most interesting accent, which comes off as slightly British. He used it to good effect when he participated in the panel discussion after the screening of "Pink Floyd The Wall," the Ebertfest opener on Wednesday evening.
Grace Wang, who was born in China and moved to Toronto when she was 11, is the only woman among the bloggers – and at 27, the youngest.
Valero said she brings a lot to the group and is a great writer.
"I couldn't write like her," he said.
All of the bloggers provide Ebert with video and text reviews in English. Correspondent Seongyong Cho of South Korea also maintains a personal blog in Korean.
None of them works for a professional publication. Cho even used the term "definitely amateur" to refer to themselves – though their insights are as sharp as those of some of the critics on stage at the 12th annual Ebertfest.
This festival marks the first time the farflungers have met in person and the first time they've attended Ebertfest.
"This is a lot like a high school reunion for us, but we'd never met before," Valero said. "We know each other because we know our work."
They brought gifts for each other that are emblematic of their countries. Michael Mirasol of the Philippines brought dried mangos. Valero gave small gift baskets with tiny bottles of Don Juan tequila and Mexican sweets. Mozaffar presented books of poetry by Sufi, the 13th century Persian poet and mystic.
In turn, Mirasol said Roger Ebert gave them a unique gift.
"Because he believes in our passion for movies which really move us he basically gave us a set of new friends who can talk the same language," the Filipino said. "I basically can't talk the same language even with my dearest loved ones."