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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Stars, Music, Movies and Compassion Converge: Ebertfest 2017 Preview

Instead of dedicating this year's Ebertfest to a person, we are dedicating it to four principles that have proven to be more vital than ever in this political climate: Empathy, Compassion, Kindness and Forgiveness. I've had the opportunity to look at cinema and art through the prism of these principles with Ebert Fellows (emerging writers, film critics, filmmakers and technologists) from around the country, some of whom will be attending this year's festival to continue that discussion in the hope that these principles will spread like memes. In addition to celebrating these principles, we are also dedicating the festival to an organization that embodies each of them: the Alliance for Inclusion and Respect (formerly the Champaign County Anti-Stigma Alliance.) They are sponsoring a documentary, "Mind/Game," that deals with the challenges faced by a female athlete of color, once dubbed "the female Michael Jordan," who is diagnosed as bipolar. 

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In fact, this will be the first year in which we are showing three documentaries (the other two are "They Call Us Monsters," by Ben Lear and "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady), and they all illustrate in one way or another the essential need for empathy, kindness, compassion and/or forgiveness. 

The beauty of these films and the others is that you get to viscerally experience every emotion from laughter to tears, and more, on a screen as wide as the heavens, projected by the expert James Bond, in an audience with 1500 other enraptured movie lovers, with Q&A's after each film, and academic panels drawn from the industry as well as the University. We open with a newly minted 35 mm copy of "Hair" with it's producers, Michael Butler and first AD Michael Hausman in attendance. And we close with Irwin Winkler's "De-Lovely" about Cole Porter with Mr Winkler in attendance, followed by a live performance of songs by the Demers Brothers. What more could you ask for? 

Well, there is more, lots more, including Golden-Globe winning, Oscar nominated actress Isabelle Huppert appearing onstage with Sony Classics co-president, Michael Barker and their movie "Elle," movie star Hugh Dancy and his director Tanya Wexler with "Hysteria," the iconic director Gary Ross with "Pleasantville," the talented director Charles Burnett with "To Sleep With Anger," joined onstage by Robert Townsend; five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel with "Being There," a silent film, "Variete" accompanied by our valued Alloy Orchestra; and a short film, "July and Half of August," presented by our very own film critic and screenwriter, Sheila O'Malley.  

So Ebertfest 2017, in our 19th annual installment of the festival, will be celebrating the work of female filmmakers, African-American directors and visionaries from the United States, South Korea, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. With memories of the Women's March on Washington fresh in our minds, this festival will be an especially timely one, considering its multiple portrayals of women who are strong, liberated and in some instances, unapologetically sexual beings. We have also unearthed several gems from the past that speak directly to our present moment.

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April 19-23 at the Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois, will be one heckuva film festival. And we hope you will be there with us.  

Here is a look at the full list of films set to screen this year.

Wednesday, April 19th

7pm: "Hair"

Special guests: Michael Hausman (first assistant director) and Michael Butler (producer)

For opening night, we are bringing the grandeur of musicals back to the festival by screening one of your favorites from the '70s, Milos Forman's "Hair." John Savage stars as a country boy in New York City, who befriends a group of hippies led by Treat Williams. In Roger's four-star review, you wrote that anyone who could sit through the film's opening dance sequence without being thrilled "should give up on musicals." Apart from being a terrific musical, you were amazed that the film succeeded not as "a period piece but a freshly conceived and staged memory of the tribulations of the mid-sixties."

Thursday, April 20th

1pm: "Hysteria"

Special guests: Tanya Wexler (director) and Hugh Dancy (actor)

Tanya Wexler's sublime 2011 comedy, "Hysteria," is a fact-based account of the doctor who devised the first vibrator, thus enlightening the London public on the concept of the female orgasm. In Roger's review, he wrote that one of the film's pleasures is "how elegantly it sets its story in the period. The costumes, the sets, the locations and the behavior are all flawless, and the British characters in the screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer are all masters of never quite saying what they mean."

4pm: "To Sleep with Anger"

Special guests: Charles Burnett (director) and Robert Townsend

Among our special guests this year is the great Charles Burnett, the trailblazing African-American filmmaker known for such acclaimed pictures as 1978's "Killer of Sheep" and 1983's "My Brother's Wedding." This year, we're screening his suspenseful 1990 drama, "To Sleep with Anger," starring Danny Glover as an unwelcome visitor who infiltrates the lives of a family in California. In Roger's review of the film, he wrote, "Glover is an actor of considerable presence, and here he lets us know his character is from hell, and hardly has to raise his voice."

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8:30pm: "The Handmaiden"

Further obliterating the stigma associated with female sexuality is Park Chan-wook's "The Handmaiden," a film made by an artist at the peak of his powers, as observed by Matt Zoller Seitz in his four-star review. The labyrinthine plot involves the tangled relationship between a Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) and her handmaiden (Kim Tae-ri). Seitz wrote that the picture "is a love story, revenge thriller and puzzle film set in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. It is voluptuously beautiful, frankly sexual, occasionally perverse and horrifically violent. At times its very existence feels inexplicable. And yet all of its disparate pieces are assembled with such care, and the characters written and acted with such psychological acuity, that you rarely feel as if the writer-director is rubbing the audience’s nose in excess of one kind or another."

Friday, April 21st

1pm: "July and Half of August"

Special guest: Sheila O’Malley (screenwriter)

I am so pleased to be screening the work of one of our wonderful film critics Sheila O'Malley, who penned the script for this short film directed by Brandeaux Torville. According to Matt Zoller Seitz, “the film captures how a certain kind of smart person talks: sincerely and passionately, but also in a way that flaunts their education and intellect, in hopes of salving old wounds and convincing the listener that the image they’re trying to put forth is accurate, and not just hype or wishful thinking.”

Followed immediately by: "They Call Us Monsters"

Special guests: Ben Lear (director) and Sasha Alpert (producer)

In the same year that Norman Lear will be joining us at Ebertfest, his son, Ben Lear, will also be a cherished guest when his debut feature, "They Call Us Monsters," screens later in the festival. The film centers on three juveniles faced with spending the rest of their lives behind bars for crimes they committed before they were adults. In his review of the film, our critic Matt Fagerholm wrote that the juveniles' screenwriting classes, where they are encouraged to open up about their experiences, reminded him of a previous Ebertfest selection, Destin Daniel Cretton's "Short Term 12." Fagerholm wrote, "Whereas Werner Herzog’s 'Into the Abyss' advocated against the cruelty of the death penalty, Lear’s film argues that even criminals charged with murder at age 17 or under shouldn’t be tried as adults and faced with irrevocable life sentences."

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4pm: "Varieté"

Special guests: Alloy Orchestra (performing an original score)

An annual highlight of the festival is the amazing Alloy Orchestra (Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger Miller), which will provide a live musical accompaniment this year to Ewald André Dupont's 1925 silent crime drama, "Varieté," about a former trapeze artist seduced by a glamorous life in the circus. The picture served as chief influence for filmmakers such as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Oscar-winning director of "The Lives of Others."

8pm: "Elle"

Special guest: Isabelle Huppert (actor)

One of the great thrills at this year's festival will be the appearance of our guest, Isabelle Huppert, the towering actress who has been proclaimed "the Meryl Streep of France." She just received her first Oscar nomination for Paul Verhoeven's "Elle," which we are screening. Roger said of her performance in Ursula Meier's 2008 "Home," that she usually looks "fundamentally the same, always assuming a new character from the inside out. Intriguing us. There's thought in that face, but it's inscrutable." I imagine Roger would've been greatly impressed with her work in "Elle," which received four stars from our critic, Sheila O'Malley. Huppert plays a woman who is raped but refuses to be a victim. In her review, O'Malley wrote that the actress "does not make even an unconscious bid for our sympathy. She never has, throughout her lengthy career and it is one of the things that distinguishes her from other actresses. Even very talented actresses want to make sure that we 'understand' why the character does what she does. Huppert doesn't care. She's completely beyond those concerns. It's why she's so thrilling to watch and why she is in such rare company (Anna Magnani, Liv UllmannGena Rowlands, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford... it's a short list)." 

Saturday, April 22nd

11am: "Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw"

Special guest: Rick Goldsmith (director)

The third documentary we're screening this year is Rick Goldsmith's "Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw," a profile of the titular basketball player who was once called the female Michael Jordan. She found herself living with a mental illness that had been undiagnosed for a decade, yet refused to be stigmatized by it. "Would Holdsclaw have reached the success she did if she had been medicated?" wrote Matt Fagerholm in his essay on the film. "Perhaps not, but there’s no denying that her greatness comes first and foremost from the strength of her character." I supported the film during its funding campaign in 2015 and am overjoyed to be including it in our festival this year.

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1:30pm: "Pleasantville"

Special guest: Gary Ross (director)

A particularly timely melding of comedy and drama, Gary Ross' "Pleasantville" follows the plight of teenagers from the '90s who find themselves in a 1950's sitcom. Roger awarded the film four stars upon its release in 1998, and wrote, "In the twilight of the 20th century, here is a comedy to reassure us that there is hope—that the world we see around us represents progress, not decay. 'Pleasantville,' which is one of the year's best and most original films, sneaks up on us. It begins by kidding those old black-and-white sitcoms like 'Father Knows Best,' it continues by pretending to be a sitcom itself, and it ends as a social commentary of surprising power."

4:30pm: "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You"

Special guests: Norman Lear (subject) and Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Brent Miller (directors)

The documentary "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You" was one of my favorite films I saw at last year's Sundance Film Festival. In my festival coverage, I wrote that the Oscar-nominated directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, provided an affectionate profile of the revered television writer and producer whose groundbreaking sitcom, "All in the Family," confronted and obliterated countless taboos during its acclaimed run in the 1970’s. Oscar-nominee and Emmy-winner Norman Lear will join us for a Q&A that is not to be missed.

8:30pm: "Being There"

Special guest: Caleb Deschanel (cinematographer)

Hal Ashby's 1979 masterpiece "Being There" is a film I've wanted to screen at the festival for some time now, and this year we're finally bringing it to the Virginia Theatre. The Oscar-nominated performance by Peter Sellers as "Chauncey" Gardner is alone worth the price of admission. In Roger's Great Movies essay on the picture, he wrote that the film was about "a man whose mind works like a rudimentary A.I. program. His mind has been supplied with a fund of simplistic generalizations about the world, phrased in terms of the garden where he has worked all his adult life. But because he presents himself as a man of good breeding (he walks and talks like the wealthy older man whose house he lived in, and wears the man's tailored suits) his simplicity is mistaken for profundity, and soon he is advising presidents and befriending millionaires."

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Sunday, April 23rd

11am: "De-Lovely"

Special guests: Irvin Winkler (director & producer), Jimmy Demers (singer) and Donnie Demers (pianist)

Sundays at Ebertfest generally end with a musical finale, and this year, we'll be closing with Irwin Winkler's 2004 music biopic, "De-Lovely," a portrait of Cole Porter, played wonderfully by Kevin Kline. In Roger's review, he wrote, "We're reminded how exhilarating the classic American songbook is, and how inarticulate so much modern music sounds by contrast." Irwin Winkler, the Oscar-winning producer of "Rocky," will participate in a Q&A followed by a performance of songs by Jimmy Demers, accompanied on the piano by Donnie Deemers.

In addition to the films, we will be presenting the following stimulating academic panels:

EMPATHY AND COMPASSION AND THE ARTS

Moderated by Chaz Ebert
Panelists: members of the Ebert Fellows 9:00 am, Thursday, April 20
Hyatt Place Hotel, downtown Champaign

TWO HOURS IN SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES

Moderated by Nate Kohn, Director, Roger Ebert’s Film Festival
Panelists: Tanya Wexler, Hugh Dancy, Michael Phillips, Michael Hausman, Michael Butler, Charles Burnett, Sheila O’Malley, Richard Neupert
10:15 am, Thursday, April 20
Hyatt Place Hotel, downtown Champaign

WHY DOCUMENTARIES MATTER

Moderated by Simon Kilmurry, IDA Executive Director
Panelists: Ben Lear, Sasha Alpert, Rick Goldsmith, Jay Rosenstein, Matt Zoller Seitz, Nell Minow, Brian Tallerico, Robert Townsend, Richard Leskosky
9:00 am, Friday, April 21
Hyatt Place Hotel, downtown Champaign

EMPATHY FOR THE UNIVERSE

Moderated by Brand Fortner, Professor, North Carolina State University
Panelists: Donna Cox, Ed Seidel, Robert Patterson, Bill Gropp, Julie Turnock, Veronica Paredes, Nate Kohn, Chaz Ebert
10:15 am, Friday, April 21
Hyatt Place Hotel, downtown Champaign

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Workshop: THE ETHICS OF FILM PRESERVATION AND RESTORATION Barry Allen, film archivist

9:30 am, Saturday, April 22
Hyatt Place Hotel, downtown Champaign

CHALLENGING STIGMA THROUGH THE ARTS

Discussion with Q&A following the screening of MIND/GAME: THE UNQUIET JOURNEY OF CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW
Moderated by Eric Pierson
Panelists: Rick Goldsmith, Carla Hunter, Juli Kartel, Joseph Omo-Osagie, Chamique Holdsclaw (via Skype) Virginia Theatre

Our sponsors are crucial. They help make the festival possible. Without their financial support we could not undertake the festival year after year. Some sponsors have been with us all 19 years; some are with us for the first time this year. We say a special thanks to some of our leading sponsors:  The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, The Alliance for Inclusion and Respect; Steak ‘n Shake; the Hollywood Foreign Press Association; SAG-Indie; the Champaign Urbana-News Gazette; and the Ebert Foundation.

And finally, I want to thank the festival-goers who keep coming back year after year. Thank you for uncovering cinema gems with us, and thank you also to those who are joining us for the first time. Thank you for honoring Roger’s memory and for keeping his legacy alive. In the tradition of Roger, I encourage you to please greet your fellow festival-goers. As Roger used to paraphrase a well-known movie title, they’re no longer strangers when they meet. 

For more information on Ebertbest 2017 and to purchase tickets, click here

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