CHAMPAIGN — Walking into the landmark Virginia Theatre, where Ebertfest wrapped up its 19th annual run Sunday, is like entering the church of Roger Ebert. His namesake film festival embodies so many of the values he championed over his life: empathy, compassion, kindness and forgiveness.
Though the legendary Sun-Times film critic died in 2013, his legacy lives on in this five-day event, which he established in his hometown of Urbana, at his hometown theater, the Virginia, built in 1921. Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow and the festival’s co-founder and producer, told the crowd: “The Virginia is like a temple for me. I can feel Roger’s spirit here.”
To underscore the festival’s mission, Chaz Ebert and Nate Kohn, the festival’s director and a professor at the University of Georgia, dedicated this year’s event to the celebration of these core principles. “There is no other time in our recent history when these values have been so desperately needed,” she said. In addition, she and Kohn also bestowed the first Ebertfest Humanitarian Award upon pioneering producer Norman Lear “for a lifetime of empathy.”
At Ebertfest, presented with the University of Illinois’ College of Media, Lear was just one of several entertainment industry luminaries, including a trio of Oscar nominees, in attendance: Isabelle Huppert, a best actress contender this year for “Elle” (2016); filmmaker Gary Ross, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Also appearing were director Charles Burnett (“To Sleep With Anger,” 1990), interviewed by pioneering indie filmmaker Robert Townsend; producer Michael Butler (“Hair,” 1979); actor Hugh Dancy and director Tanya Wexler (“Hysteria,” 2011), and the acclaimed Alloy Orchestra (accompanying the 1925 silent “Varieté”).
Introducing Huppert, Michael Barker, co-founder and co-president of “Elle” distributor Sony Pictures Classics, applauded another Ebertfest tradition: the big-screen experience. “I’ve been here 15 of the festival’s 19 years,” he said. “With all the technological change in the world, you come to appreciate the things that don’t change, and that includes watching a movie on a screen like this.” He reminded the crowd that Ebert had once written of Huppert: “A close-up of her face is worth an entire movie.”
Entering to a tumultuous standing ovation, Huppert said, “It’s very moving to be here. I feel the presence of Roger Ebert, who was supportive of my work and French cinema in general.”
During the Q&A session, Barker told Huppert, “If ever there was a movie that Roger would have loved, it would have been ‘Elle,’ ” controversial for its depiction of a woman traumatized by present and past terrors. Huppert acknowledged, “It is not an easy film, but we expected more controversy.” What drew her to the role (which several American stars had rejected) was the character’s unsentimental nature: “Too often people think characters should be nice, but it’s more important to be truthful.” Of the film’s ambiguous ending — and perhaps its overall message, Huppert said, “The film speaks for itself. It generates its own energy. It generates its own strength. … It [asks] more questions than it answers.”
Two films featured at this year’s event — “Pleasantville” (1998) and “Being There” (1979) — had long been on Ebert’s master list of festival candidates. Gary Ross, who directed, wrote and produced “Pleasantville,” told the crowd, “It’s my favorite of all the films I’ve made.” What makes it all the more special to him is that “Roger completely connected to it.” Though some reviewers at the time dismissed the film as an exercise in nostalgia, “Roger realized that it was more about tolerance, openness and empathy,” Ross said. “Many didn’t get that it was my critical view of nostalgia. … There’s always somebody trying to make America great again.”
Appearing with the documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” (2016), the TV producer and activist also touched on the current state of national discourse. Asked about whether the bigoted Archie Bunker of the Lear-created “All in the Family” would be considered tame in comparison to the views espoused by the Trump administration, Lear said, “I worry about our president. … I don’t think we’re being led well at all, either by government or business.”
While introducing “Being There,” Chaz Ebert mentioned that several pundits have wondered if Trump is a reincarnation of Chauncey Gardiner, the simpleton turned politico at the film’s center. Caleb Deschanel, the film’s cinematographer, believes the film is “more about the human condition” than it is about politics but agrees that “Being There” seems as relevant 40 years later. “We’ve created a society where there’s no longer an acceptance for variance in ideas,” he said. “The only way to get past that is through art. Art is our best way to connect to each other.”
Laura Emerick, former Sun-Times arts editor, is the digital content editor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.