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Ebertfest 2011, sincerely yours

May 16, 2011

With complete sincerity, Ebertfest is one of my favorite times of the year.

Set in the last weekend in April, the Festival occupies a moderate 5 days in length, takes place in a modest small town called Urbana, Illinois, and is organized by a core staff that can be counted on one hand. However, from this moderate, modest, humbling endeavor blooms a genuine celebration of cinema in one of the most well-run film festivals around, and one of the best times a film lover will have anywhere.

Ask any attendee of Ebertfest, and I am confident that they will back me up on the statement above.

How is this possible?

The factors are many, but the answer can be traced back to one person: Roger Ebert.

Ebertfest, per its namesake, is largely distilled from Roger Ebert’s vision of a festival that centers on “the celebration and shared enjoyment of great movies, as they were meant to be seen by those who made them.” According to Nate Kohn, Festival Director of Ebertfest: “Ebertfest is all about the films. We give no prizes, have no categories, and no business is done at our festival. That’s how we conceived the festival and that’s how it still is today.”

Roger, as I’ve come to known him, has remained true to his personal vision and continues to select films that reach, challenge, and evoke the depth of our collective human conditions year after year, building a rich history of a film festival and a loyal following of attendees and guests who, be them festival novices or seasoned veterans in the business, find themselves returning time and time again.

That leads to the sole reason beside films that makes Ebertfest so enjoyable: the people.

This is not the kind of festival that attracts arrogant, mean, disingenuous people. Frankly, if any of those people are here, they would quickly find themselves out of place and be tempted to leave, and rightly so. Free from the necessity to buy and sell in monetary terms, to advocate and calculate in glory terms, there remains little incentive to not be a decent human being who just enjoys movies, be it watching them, making them, or discussing them.

So it is for all those reasons I find myself returning again this year, despite a packed schedule that left me arriving after a 15 hour direct flight from China, followed by another 15 hour stopover in Toronto for a quick change of luggage and sleep, another 2 hour flight, another 4 hour wait in Chicago, and a 2.5 hour train ride that finally takes me to Ebertfest 2011, albeit 2 days late.

But finally, I was here. As my host Susan cheerfully picked a bleary-eyed me from the station and drove me to the Illini Union, I sort of just sat in the car seat and quietly let out a long, deep breath. It was near midnight and the streets were almost empty. The air was cool and crisp against my cheek, stinging my bloodshot eyes. Stepping into the Union and turning to the right, there was the reception desk that I checked in beside Charlie Kaufman last year, before our silent elevator ride (fully resolved later, turned out I was the awkward one), after a right and then a left down the longest hallway in the world. Slipping the plastic key into the lock, I step into a room familiar from memory, if opposite in orientation. Everything was the same. And yet, it wasn’t.

After willing myself with steel nerves to resist the call of karaoke to get some much needed sleep, so began my first day of Ebertfest, or what is the 3rd day of the Festival schedule.

Of the eight remaining films I managed to see six – a shameful tally out of the total 13 films in selection, I know (Especially bummed about missing NATURAL SELECTION and A SMALL ACT). Thankfully, none of the six disappointed, and each struck me in its unique, moving ways.

ONLY YOU (1994), dir. Norman Jewison

L to R: Norman Jewison, Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert

A story of star-crossed lovers who meet, pursue, and realize their love in luscious Italy, this is a romantic comedy in the best sense of the word. It is a movie that is impossible to be mad about, because it is so warm and genuine in wanting to make you happy. It is also a movie that is impossible to be sad in, because you know from the very beginning the sort of happy ending that is bound to tie up with a flourish, and that it does, in a most cliche scene. But despite all this, I thoroughly enjoyed the fantasy, especially with Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr. look ridiculously youthful and hopeful. They’ve both since matured into seasoned actors and fine people, but here we see them with a hint of naivete and buddings of the charms that they exude still today: Ms. Tomei’s infectious warmth and glorious smile, and Mr. Downey Jr.’s quirky wit.

LIFE, ABOVE ALL (2010), dir. Oliver Schmitz

L to R: Roger Ebert, Khomotso Manyaka, Oliver Schmitz

Shortlisted for the Best Foreign Film category of the 2011 Academy Awards and winner of Prix Francois Chalais at the 2010 Cannes festival, LIFE, ABOVE ALL is a story of the devastation of HIV/AIDS, not just physically, but socially, emotionally, and psychologically… all aspects of life as we know it. Its main heroine is Chandra (Khomotso Manyaka), a young girl trying to hold her family together in a small South African township amongst the death of a new-born sister, a grieving and sick mother, an alcoholic father, two young half-sisters, and a best friend ostracized from society for prostuting herself to survive in poverty. Chandra’s family soon becomes ostracized as well as news of her mother’s sickness spread like wildfire. After failed attempts from both religious fanaticism and medical malpractice, Chandra’s mother sends herself on a self-exile, but is eventually tracked down by brave Chandra and brought back to the village. Tension reaches a fever point in the village as fear boils amongst uneducated minds, but Chandra stands her ground. With a quiet strength that holds her head up high and keeps her back straight, she uses all her might to do what she believes is right, even in the face of so many who are too afraid to face the ugly truth.

The film is based on Canadian novelist Allan Stratton’s young-adult award-winner Chanda’s Secrets, scripted by Detroit-born novelist and playwright Dennis Foon and directed by Oliver Schmitz, a white South African. Such an international collaboration is appropriate for a universally uplifting narrative, supported with richly hued cinematography, beautiful South African choral music, and a vibrant performance from newcomer Ms. Manyaka, who was only 12 years old at time of filming. As strong and commanding her presence was in the film, equally charming and playful she was in person at the Q&A post-screening, in which she not only started to answer a duplicated question with a smiley “as I already said…,” but also put up her bare feet on the chair when the session started running long. With eyes that make seasoned critics cry and taste in shoes like that, this is a young lady to watch. The film brings into focus that the issue of HIV/AIDS is not just a health one, but a social, educational, and human rights one as well, and the battle against it requires efforts on all frontiers.

LEAVES OF GRASS (2009), dir. Tim Blake Nelson

L to R: Michael Mirasol, Nate Kohn, Tim Blake Nelson, David Poland

A film that is smarter than it looks… a lot smarter. On paper the story seems like a “Cops” episode gone wrong: There once were two twin brothers called Billy and Brady. Billy went on to become a Philosophy professor at an ivy league college with an academic superstar future, and Brady stayed at home in Oklahoma and grew a marijuana empire in his backyard. Brady lured Billy back home with fake news of his own untimely demise by cross-bow, which Billy fell for. Then, once there, he got lured further to impersonate Brady as alibi so Brady can go up to Tulsa for a meeting with the area’s head pot dealer. Then all hell breaks loose and bodies start piling up, and as fate would have it, a cross-bow is finally used to reach the film’s end.

However, this being a Tim Blake Nelson film it is of course more than mere body counts. With a name made famous by Walt Whitman’s poetry, the dialogue waxes poetic about religion, family, crime, and other heavy topics within the daily routines of small-town life in Oklahoma. It is exactly within this juxtaposition of urban versus rural, academia versus entrepreneurship, slick versus “hick”, that true colors of intelligence, philosophy, religion, and life are called into question and shined upon in brilliance. There is no way to summarize what this movie is “about,” because it really isn’t about any one particular thing but the way we think about things. Edward Norton is outstanding as both Brady and Billy — you’d never mix them up. Keri Russell seems perfectly cast as Janet, a local English teacher and poet who is almost too good to be true. The writing is smart, perhaps too smart for one viewing. As the film pulls to its last scene though, I can almost smell the fresh rain as they fall on leaves of grass, each a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

I AM LOVE (2009), dir. Luca Guadagnino

I AM LOVE is a feast for the senses. It drenches you with its sumptuous cinematography, with the elegant settings of Milan aristocracy, and with the unparalleled magnetism of Tilda Swinton, who plays a middle-age woman who’s full of wealth but starving for passion. This is her film. I mean that not in the sense that Swinton is any more magnificent here than she has consistently been in the past, but that this particular film would fall apart if she was not in it. A lesser actress with a lesser presence would leave the role shrivelled and awkward. This is all about one rich woman’s desires and how she fulfills them… a rather selfish premise, really, but Tilda makes us care.

Only to a certain extent though. Personally, the film was a pleasure to watch, but the passion only touched me skin deep. It was tactile pleasure: the wash of colors over my eyes, the violin strings that tremble my ears, the lush fabrics gliding over sensual curves… but that’s it. The feast was complete for the senses, but lacking for the heart and the mind. The pleasures failed to build up to something deeper, something more resonating. In the end, she was a woman who deserved happiness and sympathy, but still someone who I felt very far from. I couldn’t help but feel that this is “minor” Swinton, where she didn’t get, or need to, stretch all her acting gears. I related much more to Swinton’s performances in MICHAEL CLAYTON and JULIA, which I consider her finest performance to date.

LOUDER THAN A BOMB (2010), dir. Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel

The Steinmetz team perform live at Ebertfest 2011

“My life just kinda of seemed to fit…when I started writing,” Said Nova Venerable. That feeling is the heart of an inspiring, invigorating new documentary about poetry slams in Chicago. Poetry slams are basically live poetry readings in front of an audience as sport. It is a competition and performances are marked with points. However, as repeatedly stated in the film: “The point is not the point. The point is the poetry.” For these young people, their words are the colors of their lives and their pen is their brush, the stage their canvas, and when they are on that stage, in their moments, they paint masterpieces with the stories of their lives. It is enrapturing to watch.

The documentary focuses on three individuals and a team as they advance through the 2008 Chicago-area poetry slam. Each individual has a story, and we learn of them both on stage and off stage. The Steinmetz team attended the post-screening Q&A along with I, directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, moderated by Chaz Ebert, and gave a live performance that brought Ebertfest 2011 to an inspiring finish.

45365 (2009), dir. Bill Ross and Turner Ross

L to R: Turner Ross, Bill Ross

“45365 is a portrait of a city and its people.” said the about section on the official film site.

Jetlagged and semi-wired on caffeine, I had no idea what was in store as I took my seat in the usual rows stage left near the front for my first Ebertfest 2011 screening. The quixotic title “45365” was of little help. Glancing briefly at Roger’s review in the program book as the lights dimmed, all I knew was that this was a documentary about an American town that Roger loved.

As the movie began, sounds and images flickered to life, and flooded in. People moved through space: teenagers riding in back of cars, adults getting arrested for drinking in cars, toddlers playing in parents’ laps, kids trick o’treating, old men getting a trim in the barbershop, young men shooting birds in the wild, middle age men doing their jobs and getting elected, a boy and a girl get married. People move through the space of their lives, criss-crossing like powerlines in the sky, and within those moments of brief intersection… sparks fly, and are captured like lightening in a bottle by the Ross brothers with their two standard def. cameras.

With no linear narrative and discernible storylines, 45365 at first glance may be hard to “get”. However, none of the 1600 audience members alongside me at the Virginia theater seemed to have any problem throughout its 90 minutes run. Utterly absorbed in the experience, there were collective laughs and silences, moments of soft heartbreak and deep breaths, pondering and fascination. Indeed the whole film is full of the fleeting moments in life that amuse, attract, and move us, and then steadily pass us by on a daily basis. The success of the film, therefore, can only be completely attributed to the filmmakers’ vision, which is simultaneously bold and nuanced.

Consider a scene of a groom and a bride getting ready to start their lives together: the camera stays on each putting the last polish on their appearances as an individual, as the other’s vow of union plays in background. Snow flakes dribble silently through the amber glow of street lamps in the night, as a father affectionately reads to his young daughter in the warmth of their home. The camera follows a football team out onto the field to their big game, circles around the huddle, pans to the right, and then to the left, as night turns into day and players melts into shadows of wins and losses of yesterday. Seasons changing. People living. With gorgeous cinematography and impeccable editing, this is a film that, through capturing the magic of small-town American daily life, somehow caught the sincerity of life itself, a feeling that is universally understood and needs no explanation.

Speaking of sincere moments. This year’s Ebertfest was full of them for me. From catching up with old friends in familiar spots to making new friends in unexpected locales, it was a wonderful three days.

I ended the festival with our traditional outings to Steak n’Shake with the Eberts and friends, followed by a stop at Roger’s childhood home, an unassuming little white house with grey tiles now lived in by an equally winsome young family of three.

Also spent another couple days in the Windy City post-fest. Perhaps a bit ambitious for someone still severely jetlagged after two months of living out of a suitcase, but the weather was beautiful, the food and coffee amazing, and I ended up spending time with friends, checking out some screenings, biking through the city, pottering amongst vintage stores, and riding the L trains. Love the trains.

And the sky.

And an afternoon with a loyal friend, an amazing mentor, and a dear man. He also writes about movies.

Let’s have sincere moments with each other. Let’s just do it.

C’est fini.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff permalink
    May 16, 2011 11:47 PM

    Great to have you back in town again this year for Ebertfest Grace, even if it was an abbreviated visit. You can probably consider yourself blessed to have such a busy life and schedule doing what you love, though hopefully next year will find you with a less hectic schedule in April.

    At least don’t get any ideas like training for the marathon too or anything :P

  2. May 17, 2011 12:00 AM

    Hi Grace. A beautiful rendering of your particular festival experience. Loved the movie reviews, and the details of each film that made their impression on you – or didn’t in one case. And the red shoes even made an appearance.

    So glad you made it there.

    EbertFest is the only film festival that I go to, so it is what a film festival means to me. Lucky me that it’s one of the best.

  3. May 17, 2011 3:14 PM

    I especially liked the photo of Ms. Manyaka sitting with her shoes off.

  4. Yellowkid permalink
    May 17, 2011 7:45 PM

    Grace: Thanks for taking me along w/you via your word’s-eye-view, and, as always, cute shoes!

  5. May 19, 2011 12:08 AM

    Hi Grace. I’d been thinking about your last line since you Tweeted it: “Let’s have sincere moments with each other. Let’s just do it.”

    That was in my mind this weekend when I met a 20-year friend at church. I hadn’t spent any serious time with him in years. We see each other in the halls. Never get past the “I’m okay, your okay” superficiality of late.

    So, I stopped him and made a plan for dinner to catch up with each other. Sidenote: men don’t do that often or well. At least I don’t. But I made it a point to this time, with your words in my head.

    We had a great meal. We got past the superficiality and re-connected as friends again. We shared a sincere moment, because we just did it.

    Thanks for that inspiration.

    • Grace permalink*
      May 19, 2011 12:23 AM

      Randy! That makes me so happy. Seriously, I think you just made my day.

      P.s. Men don’t do that often? I thought you guys just substitute “dinner” with “beers”… :)

  6. May 19, 2011 1:26 AM

    You know, I was wondering if you would come to karaoke. Seems the thought entered your mind, too. :-)

    Anyway, it was very nice meeting you, abbreviated as it was, and I hope next time you, me, Michael, and Wael can hang out more than we did this time. Then again, since Wael didn’t come this year, any time with him would count. ;-)

    Finally, I was very touched that you made time to hang out with some of us “newbies,” jet-lagged and busy as you were. Next time I’ll try to join in on the conversation, though I did have a very nice talk with Anath at that meal.


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