Ebertfest Day 4 | 'Twenty more years!'

Ebertfest Day 4 | 'Twenty more years!'

CHAMPAIGN — Two issues concerning the future of Roger Ebert's Film Festival were resolved by popular vote Saturday at the Virginia Theatre.

Chaz Ebert raised both questions before the start of the morning's screening of director Ava DuVernay's hard-hitting documentary "13th."

"How much longer can we go on?" she pondered out loud from the podium.

"Twenty more years!" came a shout from the audience, quickly seconded by a resounding chorus of cheers and applause. Chaz acknowledged the mandate by promising to "put one foot in front of the other and go on from here."

The second question didn't fare nearly as well. Chaz repeated a suggestion she had heard that the festival shift its future format to "a more retro approach." The idea was received politely enough, but when she asked for a show of hands in favor of leaving the festival's approach as is, the vote was a landslide for the status quo.

Still, the audience response to her introduction of DuVernay to the Virginia stage was even more overwhelmingly unanimous — a thunderous standing ovation that continued uninterrupted for well over a minute until DuVernay finally accepted the microphone and begged the crowd, "Please, please, I'm going to melt into the ground."

Quipped Chaz, "Roger taught me you never step on someone's applause."

There was plenty of applause to go around, however, as four consecutive films between Friday night and Saturday evening featured female directors attending the festival as guests, and all received warm welcomes, beginning with Shari Springer Berman, half of a husband-wife team with Robert Pulcini who co-wrote and co-directed "American Splendor."

'American Splendor'

"You make a movie, and it's a job, sometimes," Berman said in introducing the 2003 film about underground comic-book writer Harvey Pekar on Friday night.

"And sometimes you make a movie, and it's a part of your life. This movie is a huge chapter in all of our lives."

The directing couple, along with producer Ted Hope, recalled after the film their experiences in meeting and winning over the manic-depressive and often abrasive Pekar and his former wife, played in the film, respectively, by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis.

Asked how they had come up with the production's unique tone and structure (part comic book-style, part film within a film), which moderator and film critic Leonard Maltin described as "the ultimate meta movie," all three filmmakers credited it to simply taking their cue from the subject matter. As Berman said, "It was just paying attention to Harvey. ... It was right there in his comics, 'cause here he was writing about himself and his life, and for us to make a movie about him, we would have to then be making a movie about a person who is constantly documenting themselves, so the meta of it was just sort of baked in."

So how did Pekar like the film? "The first time Harvey saw the movie, he fell asleep," Pulcini recalled.

However, Berman noted that the movie helped make Pekar loved as well as famous. "That, to me, was the big accomplishment of this film was that Harvey actually accomplished his dream of leaving something behind," she said.

'13th'

Director DuVernay was on a pretty tight schedule Saturday morning when she took the stage after the showing of her film "13th," as the movie ended almost exactly an hour before her flight back to the West Coast was scheduled to depart.

But she had plenty to say in the time she did have, recalling how her upbringing in south L.A.'s Compton and learning at an early age about police aggression sparked her interest in the history of such conflict and led her to investigate its roots, dating back to slavery and the little-known loophole in the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery "except as a punishment for crime."

Hailed by Chaz Ebert as "the first African-American woman in history to direct a $100 million movie," this year's "A Wrinkle in Time," DuVernay responded, "It was so fun to make, but when I hear that stat, really, it's bittersweet. ... Why am I making history? It's 2018. Shouldn't we feel kind of weird that I'm making history? You know what I mean? It shouldn't be a badge of honor to us. It should be an indictment about what we have not done in 100 years since cinema's been in existence."

Television didn't escape her indictment either. "The lack of women of color directing episodic TV is just disgusting," she said, noting that she had brought fellow director and Ebertfest guest Julie Dash onboard her series on Opray Winfrey's OWN network, "Queen Sugar," to direct multiple episodes after calls for feature films to that director had dried up, and that the series continues to run with all female directors.

She also explained that she purposely did not end her documentary "13th" by listing a 1-800 number or website or any other contact information on organizations concerned with the issues raised in the doc, because, "I can't tell you what to do about it. ... My way is telling stories."

'Daughters of the Dust'

Dash's film was next in the festival lineup, and it was just as enthusiastically received by what she described as "the most engaged, warm audience" she had encountered — at least in this hemisphere.

The film, which doesn't follow a traditional storyline but instead chronicles the day in 1906 that a family of first-generation free slaves leaves its offshore Carolina island home and migrates north, has the distinction of being the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to be inducted into the National Film Registry.

And yet, Dash noted that while she did a number of television movies after "Daughters of the Dust," the major movie studios "were afraid of what I would do next. ... I was never able to do another feature film."

On the other hand, she conceded that the movie she made with financing help from groups like Debra Zimmerman's Women Make Movies did not turn out exactly as she first envisioned.

"I wanted to do a film that was so authentic about African-American culture that it felt like a foreign film," she said, although admitting, "I originally wanted to do it as a silent film."

Frank's Favorite Fest Moments, Day 4: Saturday, April 21, 2018

— One of my favorite stories about Roger Ebert I heard told more than once over this year's Ebertfest was retold again Saturday morning by the one person who could tell it best. Ava DuVernay, director of "13th," as well as "Selma" and "A Wrinkle in Time," recounted to the Virginia audience how at age 8 she had met the late film critic and Urbana native while she and her aunt were positioned outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles to see celebrities arriving for the Academy Awards rehearsals and how she had called out for "the thumbs-up man" to come over and meet her. She mentioned that she'd had her picture taken with Ebert and that she'd posted the photo on her Twitter account. So, of course, I checked, she did, and here it is:

— I've been asked by several folks I've run into over the past few days to reveal my favorite movie I saw during the 20th Ebertfest this past week. It's a common-enough question for festival-goers to ask each other, and yet, for a guy who enjoys listing his faves every week in a newspaper column, I've found myself hard-pressed to come up with just one fave from the dozen screened at this year's festival. By no means did I see them all, but I saw several I'd never seen before — which, of course, is the whole point of Roger Ebert's Film Festival — but it's also what complicates the selection. Going into this fest, I would have said "The Fugitive" was my favorite from this lineup, and after meeting director and University of Illinois alum Andy Davis and hearing him talk about it, the actioner hasn't diminished one iota in my opinion. But I also saw Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar," which blew me away both emotionally and intellectually and is sure to find its way onto a future list of my all-time favorite sci-fi movies. But then I saw Amma Asante's "Belle," and was impressed far beyond my expectations. As I told someone at the fest's street party on Friday, I liked "Interstellar" and "Belle," two very different movies, for actually similar reasons — both being simultaneously grounded in fact and emotionally powerful. And then I saw three of the most one-of-a-kind films I think I've ever seen: "American Splendor," "13th" and "Daughters of the Dust." And as I write this, I haven't even gotten to "Ramblin' Rose" and "The Big Lebowski" yet. If forced to pick, I'd probably go with "Interstellar," but ask me which movie I'd most like to see again ... that would probably be "Belle." Ask me again tomorrow, who knows?

— On the other hand, ask me which movie from this year's Ebertfest most got under my skin and is most likely to keep me awake at night thinking, and I'd readily reply DuVernay's "13th," for all sorts of reasons — one of those being the doc's use of former Symbionese Liberation Army terrorist, convicted felon and current UI scholar James Kilgore as one of its 44 interview subjects. Still, DuVernay makes no secret of the fact that she intended "13th" to be thought-provoking. It certainly is that. Check it out on Netflix if you can.

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