Ebertfest lands Saudi director, Sony exec

Ebertfest lands Saudi director, Sony exec

CHAMPAIGN — “Wadjda,” the first feature length film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia by a woman director, will be shown at the 16th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival in late April.

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Also added to the lineup: “Goodbye Solo,” directed by Ramin Bahrani, a director who brought his “Man Push Cart” to the 2007 Ebertfest.

Bahrani and “Wadjda” director Haifaa Al-Mansour will attend the festival in person, as will perennial Ebertfest guest Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. It distributed “Wadjda,” released last year.

The movie is a contemporary coming-of-age story about the lives of girls and women in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda, the title character, is a girl who dreams of having a bicycle in a country where girls are not supposed to ride bikes. The director did much of the shooting from the back of a truck, in secret.

Barker will lead the “Wadjda” post-screening discussion with Al-Mansour at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.

“We are fortunate to have Michael Barker return to Ebertfest, as he has conducted some of our most in-depth and revealing Q-and-As, such as the one he did with the usually reserved Ang Lee,” said Chaz Ebert, president of the Ebert Company and Ebert Digital.

She also emcees Ebertfest, a special event of the University of Illinois College of Media, her late husband’s alma mater.

Ebert, who died last year, reviewed “Goodbye Solo.” He gave the 2009 release four stars, calling it a story of heartbreaking depth and power.

“Bahrani is the new great American director,” Ebert wrote. “He never steps wrong. In ‘Goodbye Solo,’ he begins with a situation that might unfold in a dozen different ways and makes of it something original and profound. It is about the desire to help and the desire to not be helped.”

The movie is set in Winston-Salem, N.C., where a white man around age 70 gets into the taxi of an African immigrant and offers him $1,000 to drive him to the top of a mountain in Blowing Rock National Park. The fare says nothing about a return trip.

Bahrani, Al-Mansour and Barker will join at Ebertfest the previously announced guests, directors Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Steve James. The rest of the lineup is expected to be released this week.

Stone will bring “Born on the Fourth of July,” starring Tom Cruise, and Lee, “Do the Right Thing.” Both were released in 1989.

James’ new biopic, “Life Itself,” about Roger Ebert, will open the festival April 23-27 at the Virginia, with further panel discussions on the UI campus.

Festival passes are $145; a few remain at the Virginia Theatre. Tickets to the individual screenings go on sale starting April 1 and are $14 for adults and $12, senior citizens and students. Call 356-9063.