Look Again - Thoughts about Ebertfest 2002

Commentary by James Berardinelli
April 30, 2002

The familiar name is "Ebertfest". The official name is "Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival". So what does it mean for a film to be overlooked, and consequently, eligible to show during this five-day event? The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines "overlook" as "to fail to see", and that's as good a description of these films as any I can come up with. These are movies that, for one reason or another, have been ignored by the distributors and the theater-going community. There are essentially three kinds of overlooked films - those that are in an overlooked format (70 mm, silent, etc.), those that were bankrolled by a major distributor but bypassed by multiplex-goers, and those that received little (if any) legitimate distribution. The 14 films screened during the course of the 2002 edition of the Overlooked Film Festival span these three categories.

Four years ago, near the beginning of May 1998, I was strolling down Chestnut Street in Philadelphia with Roger Ebert. He was discussing an idea that had long been percolating in his mind - to host a film festival that would offer "second chances" to good films that had never found their audiences. Eleven months later, in 1999, the Overlooked Film Festival was born. I was there for that first year, which at times seemed to be held together by tape and strings, but was a rousing success nonetheless. Since then, lessons have been learned and improvements made. While things don't exactly run like clockwork, and there's no way to prepare for the unforeseen (like a projector break-down in the middle of a movie), the Overlooked Film Festival has evolved to the point where it is as professionally organized and executed as any of the "major" festivals I have attended -- and far more friendly to the attendees.

Intimacy and friendliness are the words most likely to be associated with Ebertfest. All of the screenings are held at the historic Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois. (There are a few academic panels that occur elsewhere, but the Virginia is the heart and soul of the festival, and has been since its inception.) The theater seats about 1500, and, for many of this year's prime-time screenings, every seat in the house was filled. While there's a reserved area for guests of the festival (actors, directors, film critics), they are not segregated from the general admission seats, so free and open interaction is allowed - questions, hand-shaking, picture-taking, and autographs. It's rarer than rare to see this kind of thing at Sundance or Toronto. The atmosphere is relaxed, friendly, and inviting, which is a rarity at festivals.

In the midst of it all, a whirlwind of energy and ambition, was Ebert. He brushed aside minor irritants - like a lack of sleep and a fractured arm (suffered Friday night) - and kept things moving, introducing every film and moderating lengthy post-screening Q&A sessions with actors, directors, and others. Saturday night, I asked him whether he was running on just adrenaline, and his response was that the tank was almost empty, but he was charging on ahead. I suspect he slept all day Monday - a well-deserved break This is not to diminish the contributions of the other behind-the-scenes workers, without whom Ebertfest would have been a mess, but the Overlooked Film Festival exists because of Ebert's endorsement and enthusiastic participation.

A key difference between Ebertfest and the major, international festivals is the selection process. All 14 films were hand-picked by Roger Ebert, pretty much guaranteeing consistent quality (at least for those whose cinematic taste runs similar to Ebert's) rather than a sampling of hit-and-miss pot luck. As Ebert states in the "welcome" message in the festival program: "...if I love a film enough, I can devise a reason why it is overlooked." Indeed, over the course of the festival's four years, many of Ebert's personal favorites have screened.

This year's Opening Night movie was Patton. One would not initially associate this motion picture (an Oscar-winner) with the term "overlooked" - its inclusion in the festival was based on the rarity of its format (70 mm), rather than the obscurity of the title. However, upon careful consideration, one could argue that Patton is becoming increasingly overlooked by today's generation of movie-goers. Ask any 15-year old waiting in line at a multiplex if they have seen Patton, and the likely response will be "No". Of course, most of the 1500 people in the Virginia Theater are cinematically savvy, and don't fall into that category, but the prevalent philosophy of instant gratification (leading to short memories and an ignorance of history) could make any movie made before 1980 "overlooked".

Ebertfest 2002 included a selection of recognizable titles that never caught on with audiences: Wonder Boys, Grand Canyon, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. There was Paperhouse, a "horror film for children" (or so claims director Bernard Rose) that is not available on video, and Innocence, a modest art-house hit that deserved more widespread distribution. Some of the real gems came in the form of movies that played almost nowhere: George Washington, Two Women, Kwik Stop, Hyenes, and Diamond Men. I was especially impressed with the last film, from director Daniel M. Cohen (and starring Robert Forster). A compelling motion picture that merges great acting with elements of drama, romance, and the crime, this film electrified the Saturday afternoon audience. In a sad commentary on the current state of movie distribution, no one picked up this film - Cohen has been "shopping" it around himself.

One of the festival's highlights was the presentation of the silent classic Metropolis, which was accompanied live by the music of the three-man Alloy Orchestra. That was followed by the new anime Metropolis, which introduced a segment of the audience to Japanese animation, one of the fastest growing video niches. Ebertfest closed on Sunday with a screening of the documentary Say Amen, Somebody and a personal appearance by the Barrett Sisters (a singing gospel trio from Chicago).

Film festivals can be grueling experiences, even for those who are used to seeing multiple movies on consecutive days. Ebertfest is an exception, in part because of its relaxed atmosphere and in part because of the high quality of the films. When I arrived home, I was tired (in large part because of airport problems) but exhilarated. Anyone who was there for the entire festival - all 14 films - saw an amazing array of styles, approaches, and genres. Regardless of whether these movies were all truly overlooked, there's one undeniable thread connecting them - they were worth seeing in this forum, whether for the first or the fifth time. And, with the roster of overlooked films expanding every year (much like the festival's attendance), I expect Ebertfest to continue for as long as its organizers want to keep it going.

© 2002 James Berardinelli

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