CHAMPAIGN — Young filmmaker Sophie Kohn and her co-director for a short film shown Thursday at Ebertfest redeemed themselves on charges of nepotism.
Their "To Music," screened before Paul Cox's "Vincent," seemed well-received. One person in the audience called it "remarkably polished," and critic David Poland of Movie City News, who was on stage after the screening, called the short impressive considering the brief time Kohn and Fieke Santbergen spent making it.
Introducing "To Music," festival emcee Chaz Ebert addressed the subject of nepotism head-on — Sophie Kohn is a daughter of Nate Kohn, director of Roger Ebert's Film Festival.
"It's not nepotism in the sense Roger was the one who chose this film for the festival," Chaz Ebert said from the Virginia Theatre stage. "Roger saw it. He liked it. And he wanted it as a short preceding Paul Cox's film."
Cox, an Australian director and old friend of Roger Ebert's, appears in the short as the village priest.
"Paul really got to act in the film and I think it was a great performance," Sophie Kohn said after the screening.
She and Santbergen, who once worked as an intern to Cox, decided to make the short after they went to Cox's home in Provence for a visit.
Inspired by other visitors, the two decided, on impulse, to write the script and shoot it. The shoot took two days.
In "To Music," a middle-aged man is seriously ill and despondent. He rejects his female partner's offers of food as well as the urgings of a priest who tries to get him to come out of his hiding place.
After a pianist comes to the home and starts to play the piano, the ill man leaves his room with his lute and plays music with the pianist. In the last scene the ill man's partner is outdoors, dancing to music.
A woman in the audience who said she comes from a family of musicians and said she loved the short asked the filmmakers why they ended their film with that scene.
"Actually she is a dancer in real life and married to the pianist who in real life is a great virtuoso from Hungary," Sophie Kohn replied.
She said the scene illustrates the female character's relationship to music and helps conceptualize the short. Santbergen said he "speeded up a mountain" to film that last scene, before the light faded.
Sophie Kohn also said "To Music" is not about one character but about all of them and is essentially about the healing power of music.
Sophie Kohn, who is 23, was born in Urbana and attended Leal School before her family moved. She will graduate in May from the University of Georgia with a degree in mass media arts and sociology. Her father is a professor of journalism there and has been involved in movie production for years.
The Dutch-born Santberger graduated from film school in Europe. He called Cox, who was born in Europe shortly before World War II, his mentor.
"Paul has changed and guided us in many ways, not just as filmmakers but as human beings," said Santbergen, who is 26.
"To Music" was shown at the Bahamas International Film Festival and will be shown in the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The two plan to submit it to other festivals.
Cox was to have traveled here from Australia, where he has his primary home, to discuss "Vincent: The Life and Time of Vincent van Gogh," released in 1987. But his doctors would not allow him to travel.
Cox was ill with liver cancer several years ago and had a liver transplant. At last year's Ebertfest, Roger Ebert showed the documentarian David Bradbury's "On Borrowed Time," a documentary about Cox and his illness and surgery. Cox is one of Australia's leading directors.
He has made a variety of humanist films and documentaries, among them a 2001 documentary about the Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.
Cox said through Chaz Ebert that both Nijinsky and van Gogh "were called mad men in our world of insanity."
Cox also quoted from van Gogh's letters, which are read throughout "Vincent" by actor John Hurt. In them, van Gogh writes that he believes deaths from cancer, cholera and tuberculosis offer people a means of "celestial locomotion."
The artist's letters to his brother, Theo, form the backbone of the movie. Shots of van Gogh's art are shown in chronological order, often matching up with the letters, and interspersed with reenactments of scenes from his life.
Chaz Ebert said her late husband loved the movie and believed it's one of the best about an artist and his work.
In the family
Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, introduced "In the Family," which was shown on Thursday afternoon after "To Music" and "Vincent."
"This is a film that was made for Ebertfest," said Barker, who comes each year to the festival, a special event of the University of Illinois College of Media.
Barker said he's seen the 169-minute movie, released in 2011, three times — not in a row. He told everyone in the Virginia Theatre audience to turn off their cellphones and put away their laptops.
"First of all, it's a long movie," he said. "It's that rare film where you see reality in a way you don't see reality in films any more."
He also said Patrick Wang, who wrote, directed, co-produced and stars in the movie, took big risks making it.
"I think it will move you," Barker said.
He also mentioned the performance of Brian Murray, a well-known stage actor in New York who is in the Theater Hall of Fame.
"He in this movie is staggering," Barker said. "It's the kind of performance that never gets an Academy Award because it's so seamless that it doesn't seem like acting."
Murray plays a Southern gentleman lawyer who comes out of retirement to help Wang's character with a child custody case.
Playing opposite Wang is Trevor St. John, an actor with television and film experience. St. John's flight was delayed in Chicago but he was expected to arrive in Champaign on time for the question-and-answer session after the screening.
Actor Jack Black, however, did not make it to Ebertfest for the screening of "Bernie" late Thursday night. He could not fly out of Los Angeles due to the weather.
"This weather has been playing havoc with everything," Kohn said.
Most of the other Ebertfest guests, among them "Bernie" director Richard Linklater, who lives in Austin, Tex., have made it to C-U, if not on time, Kohn added.