The night is overcast and drizzly while a midwest chill permeates the air, promising a few more nights by the fire until spring finally arrives. Nonetheless, under an open air tent outside The President’s House, an excited buzz rises up as faces recognize one another. “It’s rather like looking through an old yearbook, at people you haven’t seen for the last 3 years…” remarks Dr. Andrew Michael Hall, Festival Coordinator. The congeniality and the enthusiastic faces beaming at one another confirm the statement.
Ebertfest , returning after a three year hiatus due to what co-founder, Chaz Ebert, refers to as, “The Great Pause,” seems to be back in full swing.
A local celebration of the arts, deeply connected with the University of Illinois, where the late Roger Ebert studied Journalism, the mood is joyful and triumphant. While there are varying degrees of mask wearing, and attendees are encouraged to not hug or shake hands, this does not detract in any way from the sense of community and genuine celebration of seeing familiar faces once again.
Festival go-ers huddle in corners of the lobby planning which, if not all, of the screenings they will attend. Even the hotel staff is in on the excitement, being a mere couple of blocks from the historic Virginia Theatre. One Ebertfest regular exclaims, upon seeing a familiar front desk attendant “You’re here! I wasn’t sure if you would still be here!” as she joyfully reunites with an old friend.
A festival unlike any other, that originated in order to celebrate films that hadn’t received the recognition they originally deserved, this is a true crowd of cinephiles who know their stuff. Beyond the many directors and people in industry who are in attendance, the local crowd is well versed — some of them even on their 20th year of returning to this illustrious festival.
Chaz, of course, is ever the gracious host. She takes the podium, taking time to recognize familiar faces, while providing the most genuinely kind introductions to all who she shares the stage with. One such guest, a musician, Clem Snide, opens the evening with his original song, “Roger Ebert.” It is a treat, as is the festival organist playing renditions of modern songs and the local music acts of Ms. Tammy McCann and Ther’Up.Y who perform, what can only be described as, a good old Gospel style rendition of “Oh Happy Day.”
There is no sense of urgency throughout the evening, rather we all bask in the specialness of the moment, celebrating. The same can be said of the headlining event of opening night, the 2021 film, “Summer of Soul.” A documentary debut by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the film celebrates the overlooked 1969 event, the Harlem Cultural Festival. Now, through forgotten footage, we witness the glorious celebration of Black history, culture, and fashion that features breathtaking archival concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, and so many more during the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969. The documentary takes its time paying tribute to each legend, and also features interviews with attendees who reflect on the cultural significance of this event, what it meant to them, and what it means now.
It is dynamic, energetic, hopeful, soulful, and joyous — the perfect opening to the triumphant return of this one of a kind festival.