A hectic college life has often meant lasting weeks or months without watching a movie – something of a problem for a cinephile, to say the least. So as my final year as a college student in Champaign, I promised to experience Ebertfest as fully as possible. For the past two years, I succeeded in attending one screening each; this year, I cleared my schedule and dedicated my time to its full five days. Five days of constant education and inspiration, including viewings of seven films: Goodbye to Language 3D, The End of the Tour, Girlhood, Wild Tales, The Motel Life, 99 Homes, and Seymour An Introduction. (All reviews may be found here.) A lack of time and money prevented me from witnessing all screenings, as well as morning academic panels, but luckily, Ebertfest maintains recordings of all its Q&As and panels on Youtube.
Additionally, I’m currently enrolled in a film festivals class at the university which blends lessons of festival history and cultural theory with practical organization skills for our own student film festival. Because of this, I knew Ebertfest would be even more unique, and not to be missed. Ebertfest stands to appreciate film with true cinephiliac honesty and, in recent years, has successfully remained true to Roger Ebert’s vision and the person and film lover that he was. Its success also has as much to do with the organizers – Chaz Ebert, Mary Susan Britt, and Nate Kohn – and the community of filmgoers that attend each year. The tenderness is evident – in how the audience interacts with one another, how the audience interacts with the films, how visiting filmmakers are treated, and how the program is presented. Ebertfest is carefully curated: it is a retrospective; it is a chance to view some of this year’s upcoming independent films; it is a chance to discuss films directly with those who created them; and thanks to James Bond, it is a chance to experience what prime film projection looks and sounds and feels like. The fact that Champaign houses the university is another plus, ensuring the discussions are rarely dull.
Personal highlights include The End of the Tour (an experience so personal that I came home and stayed up for an extra three hours to write the review and reflection), as well as Seymour: An Introduction (Ebertfest’s annual Sunday music documentary). To say the least: Seymour was the perfect – no, only – way to end the festival. To elaborate: Seymour was this year’s first and only standing ovation, and for good reason. Director Ethan Hawke enters the picture, fueled by his own crisis of soul, and then quietly steps back, redirecting the spotlight back to pianist Seymour Bernstein, who teaches the audience how to live a life with brutal honesty. Seymour was present at the festival, along with his friend Andrew Harvey, the man responsible for introducing Seymour and Hawke. With Seymour’s film, I almost didn’t want to say much. Although I love film (a lot), music has always been my first love – and so Seymour’s philosophies on life and art and solitude resonated even stronger. At the end of the film, we see Seymour perform his first solo concert in decades in front of a small audience of close friends. The last song finishes, the screen cuts to black, and we hear Seymour’s voice: “I never dreamt that with my own two hands, I could touch the sky.” Roll credits. “Holy shit,” I muttered to myself. Watching Seymour: An Introduction felt like soul cleansing, like cosmic awakening.
Chaz Ebert emerged from behind the red curtain with Seymour on her arm and mentioned his comment on the fact that our screening was the best sounding out of all the ones he’d seen – and he’d seen a lot of them. Plus, as a musician – he knows something about sound. Chaz burst into tears, telling us that Seymour felt “as if Roger was speaking to him” during the final scene. She presented the Golden Thumb award to both Seymour and Andrew. The Q&A began, where Seymour continued to beautifully articulate his philosophies while still managing to make the audience laugh. After, Seymour himself taught one of his mater classes to two talented and privileged university students. I had to leave before the teaching began, but I can only imagine how inspiring it must have been – and particular, because the lesson itself lasted an hour long.
There was a point in the festival, on Saturday when the sun was out and the theatre scheduled four films in a row until midnight, when I grew tired and yearned to resume my work. This was in contrast to the first few days when I exhibited an unstoppable drive and desire to write about each film. Then during the final days, I was more focused on consuming and admiring the experience. But the fact will always be that these kinds of experiences are nearly useless to me without active reflection or return. The heart of this year’s Ebertfest lied in ultimate truth and human existence – and as always, personal integrity. I saw it in the message of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language; in The End of the Tour’s David Foster Wallace; in Girlhood’s Mariame; in the captivating, hilarious, tragedy-ridden Wild Tales; in Frank and his loved ones in The Motel Life; in Nash and his dilemma in 99 Homes; and all throughout Seymour: An Introduction. Truth, human existence, integrity. Did I go to a film festival or a spiritual retreat? Either way, the whole experience was more than worthwhile.