2013 Ebertfest notebook Day 1

Young filmmaker Sophie Kohn said she "surely" hopes her short film is not being shown at Ebertfest because of nepotism.

She said she feels lucky that Roger Ebert had seen her 17-minute "To Music" and liked it.

"He said, 'This is remarkable,' and I quote," she said Wednesday evening during the Ebertfest reception at the home of the University of Illinois president.

Kohn, 23, daughter of Ebertfest director Nate Kohn, made "To Music" with Dutch filmmaker Feike Santbergen, 26, who's also at the festival. They met at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010.

They had been inspired to make "To Music" spontaneously, while visiting the Provence home of director Paul Cox after a lot of "interesting characters" showed up.

Sophie and Santbergen spent a weekend writing the script and the next week co-directing and shooting it.

"It was a lot of time awake," she said.

"To Music," in which Cox plays a village priest, had its premiere at the Bahamas International Film Festival and will be shown in The Short Film Corner at Cannes in May. The two plan to enter it in other festivals as well.

It will be shown Thursday afternoon at Ebertfest alongside Cox's "Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh," which was released in 1978.

Cox was to have appeared with the movie but will not be at Ebertfest because his doctors advised him not to make the trip.

Sophie Kohn attended Leal School in Urbana before her family moved to Athens, Ga. She will graduate from the University of Georgia, where her father is a journalism professor, in May, with a degree in mass media arts and sociology.

Diverse lineup

The 2013 Ebertfest lineup "really reflects Roger's diverse tastes," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics and a frequent Ebertfest guest.

"I know all of the movies that are being shown here," he said Wednesday night at the Ebertfest reception. "They are great movies that demand to be seen and demand more attention."

Barker also said he believes Roger Ebert remains a positive force even though he's passed away in body.

"His spirit is a great presence. As far as film appreciation is concerned, his work is so massive it will always be with us."

Far-Flungers

Five of Ebert's "Far-Flung Correspondents are at this year's Ebertfest. And even though they live in different countries, they all heard of Roger Ebert's death on April 4 at the same time, said Gerardo Valero, a Far-Flung Correspondent who lives in Mexico City.

"He was so committed to our group," Valero said during the Ebertfest reception at the UI president's home in Urbana.

Valero, who writes a daily blog for Mexico's Cine-Premiere Magazine, said he "never received so much goodwill" until after people realized he knew Ebert and that his writings were included on Ebert's website.

Commenting on the cartoons he saw after Ebert's death, Valero said:

"On his way to heaven there has to be a stop at Steak 'n Shake."

Ebertfest family

Grace Wang, a Far-Flung Correspondent whose first film, the short "I Remember," was shown Wednesday night at Ebertfest, called it a passion project shot on a zero budget, with borrowed equipment.

She then went on, from the Virginia stage, to talk about Roger Ebert, the one person who was on everybody's mind at Ebertfest, she said.

She said he changed the course of her life, as her parents had expected her, a first-generation immigrant to Canada from China, to become a doctor, accountant or engineer — in that order.

She became a lawyer but film continued to be her passion and refuge, she said. And though Ebert didn't encourage her to make films, he told her she has a voice and broadened her horizons.

"He encouraged me to be the best person I can be," she said.

Chaz Ebert: 'I needed this'

Chaz Ebert said after Wang's "I Remember" was shown Wednesday night at Ebertfest that she doesn't know why her husband had chosen it to open the 2013 Ebertfest.

In the experimental "I Remember," a young woman, played by Lily Huang, finds a note in the pocket of a white shirt that had belonged to her boyfriend, who had died.

Chaz Ebert told the Ebertfest audience she had just found a note from Roger in her eyeglass case. In it he left instructions for her to invite the Ebertfest filmmakers, Far-Flung Correspondents, film critics, sponsors and family members to go to the front of the Virginia for the sing-along to "Those Were the Days," with lyrics customized for the event by her late husband.

Mark Noller accompanied the singers, who included four members of the UI Black Chorus, on the Virginia's refurbished Wurlitzer organ.

"He always loved the organ here," Chaz said of her husband.

Chaz Ebert is emceeing the 2013 Ebertfest again, a duty she took over after her husband lost his speaking voice several years ago after surgeries for thyroid and salivary gland cancer.

She seemed to be holding back tears as she came on stage to a standing ovation at the sold-out Virginia Theatre. Later, she said from the stage, "Thank you for giving me some place to go today. Thank you. I needed this."

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