Once upon a time, from the early 1970s through the early days of this century, largely due to the efforts of my late colleague and fellow critic Professor Edwin Jahiel, real, live filmmakers from around the world would visit the University of Illinois campus with their films, discuss them and take questions from the audience.
The two most readily recognized visitors for local audiences were probably Frank Capra and Jean-Luc Godard, but we had others equally well-known on the international level, such as Ousmane Sembene from Senegal, often called the father of African film; and Mrinal Sen, generally regarded at the time as the Indian Godard (though he was a much nicer guy than Godard himself).
Since 1999, Ebertfest has been bringing directors, writers, actors and other film artists to the Virginia Theatre every year with their films to converse with critics on stage and respond to audience questions. This year, of course, the coronavirus threat led to Ebertfest being canceled.
But you can get still get some of the feel of that sort of experience — listening to accomplished filmmakers discussing their films with knowledgeable interlocutors — online from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Their “Walker Dialogues and Film Retrospectives” series comprises 60 interviews, spanning 30 years, with directors, actors, writers and producers, often at pivotal moments in their careers. Most are directors, but many wear multiple hats like Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee, and some have added other hats since the year of their interview. The site lets you sort artists by (overlapping) categories of Activist, Actor, Animation, Director, Experimental, Documentary, Independent, New Wave, Producer and Writer.
The interviews, conducted by professional film critics, scholars and Walker Center personnel, generally run one to two hours, although a handful are shorter. The interviews originally accompanied retrospectives of the filmmakers’ works and often coincided with a recent release. All the interviews appear now with their original printed program notes and nearly all with downloadable transcripts. From the series’ inception in 1990 through 1995, the interviews can be heard on audio tracks; beginning in 1996, most are presented as videos, so you can actually observe interviewers and honorees interacting.
There are a few exceptions. John Waters, for one, insisted on doing a monologue rather than a dialogue, and because he later incorporated that into a one-man stage show, only a few minutes of excerpts from it are available on the site. And Christopher Nolan specifically requested that he not be recorded.
Local viewers nostalgic for Ebertfest can find a 1997 dialogue between Roger Ebert and Werner Herzog, a festival guest here in 2004 and 2007. Film historian David Bordwell, a frequent Ebertfest commentator, spoke with Robert Altman in 1992. Other Ebertfest guests (with the years they appeared here) include John Sayles (2005), Julie Dash (2015), Guy Maddin (2008, 2009) and Ang Lee (2008). And the late Klaus Phillips, who taught German Cinema at the University of Illinois, turns up interviewing German director Doris Dorrie in 2000.
The interviewers originally organized the discussions around clips from the filmmakers’ works, but because of copyright restrictions, the clips are not included here — the one drawback to this collection. But you can often find the referenced films available on line. Even if you don’t hunt up the clips yourself, though, the talks are nonetheless enlightening and engrossing.
The Walker Art Center is one of the most-visited modern and contemporary art museums in the country with 700,000 visitors per (normal) year. (In case you were curious, the Art Institute of Chicago draws 1.5 million visitors per year.) The Walker Dialogues and Film Retrospectives were launched with support from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and sustained over the past 25 years with generous support from the Regis Foundation and Anita and Myron Kunin. The online series
“Walker Dialogues and Retrospectives: The First Thirty Years” is made possible by generous support from Anita Kunin and the Kunin Family.
I’ve posted a clickable link to this Walker Art Center series on my Twitter feed (@RichardLeskosky), or you can type this address into your web browser: walkerart.org/magazine/series/dialogues-film-retrospectives.