The thirteenth edition of Roger Ebert’s Film Festival starts Wednesday with an eclectic mix of films whose sole qualifying criteria is that the world’s most famous film critic wants you to see them. Over five days, Ebert and his wife Chaz will play host to thirteen features ranging from documentaries (45365, Louder than a Bomb), American indies (Leaves of Grass, Tiny Furniture), and world classics (Metropolis, Umberto D). The festivities take place in the Virginia Theater at Ebert’s alma mater, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, with an impressive roster of guests including Tilda Swinton (I Am Love), Richard Linklater (Me & Orson Welles) and Norman Jewison (Only You).
While Ebert is the driving force behind the festival, he will largely take a back seat during the presentation of his hand-picked films and invited VIPs due to his well-documented fight with salivary cancer that has left him unable to speak. Ebert made his condition the subject of a powerful presentation at the TED Conference last month, with his wife, two close friends, and the computerized voice of his MacBook taking turns delivering his address. Ebert’s TED Talk is a poignant reflection on the place that words and technology have in determining both one’s identity and the ability to have a fulfilling existence in society.
We caught up with Ebert to get a preview of what to expect at Ebertfest ’11:
Keyframe: It’s worth considering the meaning of Ebertfest for you in light of your recently posted TED Talk, which is now an instant viral video hit. You gave a life-affirming testimony of how digital and virtual technology enable you to continue living a very productive and socially active life, to speak without needing to “speak.” But what about a live public event, especially Ebertfest, where you are one of the main attractions? How do you experience Ebertfest differently than you did before you lost your ability to speak?
Ebert: It is completely different. For years I was on stage with every guest after every film. The use of a computer voice makes that kind of exchange impractical. On the other hand, I enjoy the wonderful participants we put onstage, including the Far-Flung Correspondents from my web site, and some of the contributors to Ebert Presents. Chaz has taken over the emcee duties, and is a natural.
Keyframe: This year’s Ebertfest has a distinctive South By Southwest theme; perhaps it’s no coincidence as you were on the Narrative Feature Jury of this year’s SXSW. Two films you are presenting, Natural Selection and Tiny Furniture, were the big winners of the last two years at SXSW. What distinguishes SXSW from all the other major US festivals?
Ebert: I wasn’t consciously looking for SWSW films; it sort of worked out that way. I think SXSW may be a little more outsider than the other major American festivals, a little more regional (in a good way). The films it draws gain something from their juxtaposition with the enormous presence at SXSW of music and interactive media. Some movie fans don’t quite realize that, of the three, film is probably third in importance at the festival. (Not to me, however.)
Keyframe: Ebertfest opens April 27 with a screening of the new restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with 30 minutes of re-discovered footage. How does the added footage improve or enhance what is already an all-time landmark in sci-fi cinema?
Ebert: It fills in some narrative gaps and answers some plot questions. It restores some gorgeous shots. It is as close as we will ever come to a director’s cut.
Keyframe: I’m perhaps most intrigued by the inclusion of Only You. Director Norman Jewison and stars Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr. all have long, distinguished filmographies, and this film hardly gets mentioned among them. How did you come back to this film for inclusion in the program?
Ebert: The festival started out being called “Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festval.” I wanted to show films, genres and styles (including silent and B&W) that were overlooked. We changed the name, but the idea remains. I have admired Norman Jewison since I began reviewing. I love Only You. You’re right–it hardly gets mentioned. I also have great respect for Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey. So it all came together.
Keyframe: On April 30 Tilda Swinton will be on hand to present I Am Love. How would you describe what makes her such an unmistakable performer?
Ebert: She is her own person. I’ve run into her time and again at festivals, and we’ve talked a lot, but oddly enough I’ve never done a proper interview with her. I am so inspired by that photo we have in the program of her physically hauling a “cinema wagon” through the hills of Scotland to bring movies to outlying districts. As an actess, she he fearless and peerless, and has superb taste in directors. I Am Love really, really got to me.
Keyframe: Your TED Talk was as riveting as a Hollywood drama, though a movie could never recreate the power of the moment captured on that stage between you, Chaz and your friends. Still I am curious, who would you and Chaz pick to play yourselves in a movie version of your life together?
Ebert: I have no idea!