Roger Ebert will forever remain in the hearts of film lovers and film critics alike. His unique personality accompanied by his insight into all things film created a new way for people to see and enjoy going to the movies. Ebertfest, now celebrating its 20th anniversary on April 18-22, in Champaign, Illinois was originally named the Ebert Overlooked Film Festival to pay “...homage to those films that he thought needed to be seen by bigger audiences...” said his wife Chaz in a recent interview.
It’s been five years since Ebert passed away, but Chaz and her team continue this festival with special events planned for the 20th anniversary celebration. I had a chance to sit down with Chaz to discuss the festival, but also to get to know this woman who continues to champion Ebert’s causes, his vision of what makes films important in life and her focus on women in the filmmaking industry.
Chaz, a Chicago native and former lawyer, grew up on the Near West Side with her eight siblings; four brothers and four sisters. Movies have always been a part of her life as she recalled, “...you could take the bus and go downtown...on State Street and they have all these movie houses. We were so lucky! So as kids, our parents trusted us to go to the movies...We felt like grownups going to the movies together as kids.” Chaz also fondly recalled watching television shows like “Ponderosa” with her father and brothers, sharing that she felt each of her brothers were like the characters. “My younger brother was like Little Joe, the one everyone was always trying to reign in...” Lucille Ball, too, holds a special place in her heart.
In an effort to continue one of Ebert’s causes, empathy, Chaz has created #day4empathy which she hopes will become nationally recognized on April 4, the anniversary of Ebert’s death. He felt that, as Chaz said, “...movies are a machine that generate empathy...hopes and dreams and aspirations, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” She continued, "[The day is] to encourage people to have conversations to impress in kids to try to relate to people who are different than they are and to bring out their best self.” On April 4, Chaz and her team planned to hand out bracelets and encourage random acts of kindness around Chicago, talking with residents and planting that seed of empathy in the hopes of taking root.
A fan of documentary filmmaking, Chaz is also a champion of women behind the camera as well as the focal point in front of it. A favorite film, Jennifer Arnold’s A Small Act, which was screened at a past Ebertfest, was an amalgam of these attributes: a female filmmaker telling a story about a woman who addresses the concept of empathy. This year, the festival continues to highlight women, which happened both intentionally and as happenstance. She said, “I absolutely wanted to...have more performances by women, by actresses...for our 20th.” Selena is one of those films featured this year. Chaz continued, “I wanted to make sure I had a movie in the festival that I knew the Latino American audiences could relate to and Selena, to me, just like Elvis, gets more popular as the years go on.”
This year, of the 12 films screening, six are directed by women. “We have the Queens of Cinema, not just three, [but] six women directors coming to the festival...” including Ava DuVernay (13th), Amma Asante (Belle), Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Shari Springer (American Splendor), Catherine Bainbridge (Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World), and Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose). Chaz commented in more detail about Coolidge and her film. “Martha Coolidge was one of those directors who....everybody thought, ‘This is going to open it up for so many [female] directors...' and it didn’t!”
Question & Answer sessions following the screenings, panel discussions, special guests, musical events and a party will round out this year’s festival. One of the panel discussions addresses head on what’s happening in Hollywood: “Leveling the Playing Field: Hollywood In the Time of #MeToo and #TimesUp," moderated by Carrie Rickey. On Friday night, April 20, there will be a band, cake, and ice cream on the Plaza at the Virginia Theatre to celebrate the 20th anniversary. And on Sunday, as is tradition, a musical event will take place following the screening of Rumble: Indians Who Rocked the World.
It’s clear that Ebertfest is opening the doors of discussion and increasing the percentage of women filmmakers in this festival to 50 percent, representing the population. While the festival is looking back on favorites as well as overlooked films from the past, it is paving a new path forward into equality in this industry.
© Pamela Powell (4/9/18) FF2 Media