Festival provided a measure of solace
CHAMPAIGN — Chaz Ebert believes having emceed her husband's film festival just two weeks after he died was cathartic for her as well as the audience.
"It was comforting because it felt just like where I should be and where Roger would want me," she said after the five-day Ebertfest ended on Sunday at the Virginia Theatre and on the University of Illinois campus.
She will continue to emcee the special event of the UI College of Media and Ebertfest will continue as is, according to festival director Nate Kohn and College of Media Dean Jan Slater.
Kohn said that after Ebertfest became a big success, people began asking him and Roger Ebert whether it would be made bigger or moved to a bigger venue.
"No. Roger said no. We like it just the way it is," said Kohn, who like the festival's namesake is a UI College of Media alumnus.
Told some festival-goers found the movies more somber this year, Kohn replied, "Roger knew. He tends to program films that relate to things he's thinking about at the moment."
Festival-goer Daniel Weber, who proposed to his girlfriend at Ebertfest 10 years ago, said he felt the same as another festival-goer, Mollie Holman of Champaign, who had said she could see Roger Ebert's hand in each of the nine features, three documentaries and two shorts selected for the 2013 Ebertfest.
"She felt each film had a completely different messages," Weber said shortly after he and his wife, Janet, told Chaz Ebert that they were still together.
The 2013 festival opened on Wednesday with Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven," a movie that tells not "a story of melodrama but one of loss," Ebert wrote in his 1997 review. The guest with that film was the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, to whom Roger Ebert had dedicated this year's festival.
Ebertfest 2013 ended with the honest and moving documentary "Not Yet Begun to Fight." (Go to http://bit.ly/12yERyu for Melissa Merli's pre-Ebertfest story on the documentary.)
In it wounded veteran Elliott Miller, a Navy Seal who lost his speaking voice as a result of severe war injuries, uses text-to-voice software to speak eloquently about his condition, much as Roger Ebert had done after losing his speaking voice as a result of complications following cancer surgery.
Perhaps one of the most poignant moments in the festival came when the final line was spoken in the Japanese movie "The Ballad of Narayama": "When we reach the age of 70, we, too, shall go to the mountain." It was the last movie that Ebert, who was 70 when he died on April 4, selected for the 2013 festival.
In "Narayama," villagers who turn 70 are taken to a remote mountaintop to die of exposure, leaving one less mouth to feed in a time of little food to go around.
Alcohol and drug addiction and the emotional and physical toll they take also was a theme in at least three movies. Ebert had written candidly about his struggles with alcoholism and his success in overcoming the addiction.
And Ebert's absence this year only added to the melancholy mood, said Tim Gaines of Savoy, a second cousin to the famed film critic.
"We missed him, especially my mom" Karol, Gaines said on Sunday while holding a bouquet of flowers he later gave Chaz Ebert. "The day we got the phone call it just really hit hard. We're coping. It's just going to be hard."
Eileen Kuenneth of Chicago, who in Roger Ebert's film class met the man who would become her husband, called this year's festival bittersweet rather than somber.
"I thought it was a wonderful festival. You could see Roger's hand in so many films, the last film especially. It was dear to his heart," she said. "We were kind of afraid the festival would be a little melancholy. There were certainly tears shed because Roger wasn't here."
She and many other festival-goers, though, said they will keep on coming back each year. Among them is Champaign resident Linda Weichsel. She and 19 other festival-goers who have attended Ebertfest every year received a gift bag on Sunday from Steak 'n Shake, which had been the critic's favorite restaurant. The chain became a festival sponsor a few years ago.
Weichsel said she has loved every Ebertfest because the movies that Ebert and Kohn select connect her to humans she might otherwise never know.
"In one film I really felt like a Chinese grandfather and in another, like a little boy in Iran. I also felt like the young man in Japan in 'Departures' who learns about death and how to deal with it. I feel it helps bridge the gaps between male and female, black and white, American and Iranian and so forth.
"I thought this year's festival was lovely and wonderful and especially touching," Weichsel continued. "And I thought Chaz was courageous to come here in front of 2,000 people. That takes a lot of guts."
Slater said as long as Chaz Ebert wants to continue, to emcee the job is hers.
"She and Roger built this and as I said the other night, she's part of this family and she's so invested in what we do here."
Slater pointed out that the critic left a long list of films — somewhere between 500 and 1,000, according to Kohn — he wanted to show at his festival. He also leaves behind as a companion to those a huge body of writing on film that dates back to 1967.
Slater said Roger Ebert also specified in his and his wife's 2009 $1 million gift to the College of Media toward the establishment of the Roger Ebert Program for Film Studies Fund that the festival be part of the program. Slater said a director will be hired this summer and the program will be launched in the fall.
It will not be a filmmaking school but rather focus on film criticism, history and the economic and sociopolitical context of the film industry, according to a promotional brochure handed out during the 2013 Ebertfest.