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Woodstock, vampires, animation and politics all part of 2009 ‘Ebertfest’

frame from "Sita Sings the Blues"

"Sita Sings the Blues," an animated film by Urbana native Nina Paley won awards at the Berlin and Denver film festivals.

« Click photo to enlarge

3/27/2009 | Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor | 217-333-2894;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The films will run from the strikingly visual to hard luck reality at the 11th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, April 22-26 in Champaign-Urbana.

The visuals will come from around the globe and from filmmakers’ imaginations. The reality will come from hurricane-ravaged New Orleans and from a stripper and from chop shops in New York City.

frame from "Let the Right Ones In"

Tomas Alfredson's 2008 film from Sweden, "Let the Right Ones In," is a better movie than "Twiilight," which tells the same teenager-in-love-with-a-vampire story, Ebert said.

A newly restored director’s cut of “Woodstock,” a famous film about a famous concert, will open the festival, and a newly restored “Baraka,” in 70mm, will close it. Ebert calls the latter “one of the most beautiful films ever made.”

Among the films in between will be “Frozen River,” which received Oscar nominations for original screenplay and for best actress for Melissa Leo.

Actor Matt Dillon plans to attend the screening of “Nothing but the Truth,” a fictionalized political drama based on the Valerie Plame affair. Directors of many of the festival films also will be guests, among them Urbana natives Nina Paley and Carl Deal.

Once again the festival will offer a silent film – accompanied, for the seventh time, by the three-man Alloy Orchestra of Cambridge, Mass. This year’s feature is “The Last Command,” from 1928.

The 12 screenings will take place at the 1,500-seat Virginia Theater, a 1920s-era Champaign movie palace, with other events at the University of Illinois. The festival is an event of the College of Media at Illinois.

Ebert is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-hosted “Ebert & Roeper,” a weekly televised movie-review program, until 2006. He also is a 1964 Illinois journalism graduate and adjunct journalism professor.

Ebert selects films for the festival that he feels have been overlooked in some way, either by critics, distributors or audiences, or because they come from overlooked genres or formats, such as documentaries. (The festival was previously titled “Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival,” but was renamed last year since the festival itself is no longer overlooked, according to Ebert.)

Guests connected with the selected films are invited to attend, and many appear on stage for informal discussions after the screenings.

Prior to the 2007 festival, those discussions were always with Ebert, who also introduced each film. As the result of throat-cancer surgery and related health issues, however, the last two years those duties have been performed by his wife, Chaz, and festival director Nate Kohn.

Chaz Ebert and Kohn will again share onstage roles this year, but Ebert plans to return and to play a larger role with the help of assistive technology, according to festival organizers.

This year’s schedule of films, with the current lineup of guests (Ebert’s comments are from the festival program or past reviews):

Wednesday, April 22

7 p.m. – “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music (The Director’s Cut)” (originally released in 1969), a film about the 1969 concert in upstate New York “that became an icon for an era,” according to Ebert. The newly restored version will include substantial footage not seen in previous versions. Director Michael Wadleigh will be a guest, and a surprise guest is expected to make an appearance after the screening.

Thursday, April 23

1:30 p.m. – “My Winnipeg” (2007), a “gloriously inventive” quasi-documentary “in the guise of (director Guy Maddin’s) native city,” according to Ebert. Maddin’s narration takes the film through “tales of clandestine taxi companies, frozen horses and a soap opera where the hero is always about to jump from a ledge,” Ebert says. “This film peculiarly reminded me of growing up in Champaign-Urbana, where everything seemed legendary and mysterious.” Maddin will be a guest.

4 p.m. – “Chop Shop” (2007), a film about a young Latino boy and his sister living in a vast bazaar of auto parts and repair shops known as the “iron triangle,” in the shadow of Shea Stadium in New York City. Ebert praises last year’s Oscar-winner “Slumdog Millionaire,” but says it was “not as original, moving or great” as this similar film about children in desperate poverty, which he calls “one of the great American films.” Director Ramin Bahrani, who also directed a previous Ebertfest film, “Man Push Cart,” will be a guest.

8:30 p.m. – “Trouble the Water” (2008), a documentary that chronicles Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans, built around amateur video shot by city residents Kimberly and Scott Roberts, who stayed through the storm, combined with on-the-ground reporting of federal neglect. The video from the hurricane “is terrifying and heartbreaking,” Eberts says. The Robertses, along with directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, will be guests.

Friday, April 24

1:30 p.m. – “Begging Naked” (2008), an “extraordinary documentary,” according to Ebert, that follows years in the life of Elise Hill, a teenage runaway who becomes a sex worker, stripper and drug addict, while all the time producing a series of paintings of the world in which she lived. The project began after Hill asked friend and fellow artist Karen Gehres to videotape her life story. Gehres, the director, will be a guest.

4 p.m. – “The Last Command” (1928), a silent classic by director Josef von Sternberg, starring Emil Jannings and William Powell, in the story of a czarist general who finds himself without title, income or identity. The Alloy Orchestra will accompany.

8:30 p.m. – “Frozen River” (2008), a story of suspense, but also “a compelling human story of economic hardship and human spirit,” according to Ebert. The film stars Melissa Leo in an Oscar-nominated role as a single mother taking great risks to support her family, working with a Mohawk woman to smuggle Chinese into America across a frozen river. Guests will include writer-director Courtney Hunt; actress Misty Upham, who plays the Mohawk woman, and Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.

Saturday, April 25

11 a.m. – “The Fall” (2006), a film Ebert describes as “a mad folly, an extravagant visual orgy, a free-fall from reality into uncharted realms.” Directed by Tarsem Singh, who also directed the previous Ebertfest film “The Cell,” the film follows a legend told by a disabled soldier to a little girl, who then translates it into her own images. Filmed over four years in 28 countries, “there will never be another like it,” Ebert says. Catinca Untaru, the young Romanian actress who plays the little girl, will be a guest.

2:30 p.m. – “Sita Sings the Blues” (2008), a “magical animated film” and “labor of love and genius,” according to Ebert. The movie is promoted as “the greatest break-up story ever told.” Created over five years on a computer, it tells the epic Indian tale of Ramayana with stunning animation set to the 1920s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. Filmmaker Nina Paley will be a guest.

6:30 p.m. – “Nothing But the Truth” (2008), a fictional political drama based on the investigation into the 2003 leak identifying Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent. Matt Dillon plays the role of a federal prosecutor, inspired by the real-life Patrick Fitzgerald. The film also stars Alan Alda, Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga. Dillon, along with director Rod Lurie, will be guests.

9:30 p.m. – “Let the Right One In” (2008), a Swedish film by Tomas Alfredson about a youthful vampire, which Ebert describes as “much, much better” than the similarly themed “Twilight” that pulled millions into theaters. It is a deadly grim “vampire movie,” Ebert says, “but not even remotely what we mean by that term. … Remove the vampire elements, and this is the story of two lonely and desperate kids capable of performing dark deeds without apparent emotion. Kids washed up on the shores of despair.”

Sunday, April 26

Noon – “Baraka” (originally released in 1992), a restored film that Ebert describes as “an awe-inspiring celebration of wondrous sights from all over the planet.” Director Ron Fricke took his 70mm camera all over the world to film everything from Manhattan traffic to a solar eclipse to scavengers on the garbage dumps of Calcutta. “On one level, the film is a 96-minute travelogue,” Ebert says. “On another level, it is a meditation on the planet.” Fricke and producer Mark Magidson will be guests.

Other festival events, including panel discussions held on the U. of I. campus, will be announced soon. Updates on the festival will be posted on the festival Web site,

Tickets for individual films will go on sale April 6 through the theater box office; phone 217-356-9063; fax: 217-356-5729. The price will be $12 each for regular admission and $10 each for students and senior citizens. Sales will be limited to four per person.

The 1,000 festival passes, covering all festival screenings, went on sale in November and sold out within weeks.

Editor's note: Those seeking additional information and updates on films, guests and festival events should contact Mary Susan Britt, at 217-244-0552 or, or festival director Nate Kohn, at 706-542-4972 or

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