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Ebertfest in Champaign, a time for discovery and rediscovery

CHAMPAIGN – Ebertfest, now underway in Urbana-Champaign, started 25 years ago as Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, a chance to bring audiences to the critic’s hometown to see films he thought were a different look deserved.

Although the festival has the occasional premiere, the focus has always been on films that Ebert described as “empathy machines,” the films that tell stories that expand our understanding of human lives.

One premiere this year is “Albany Road,” starring Renée Elise Goldsberry (“Hamilton” and “Girls 5Eva”), who will present the film on Saturday with her co-star Lyn Whitfield (“Greenleaf”). They play women with a history of hostility and betrayal, but who have to share a long car ride through the snow after their flight is canceled. Although the story is set on the East Coast, it was shot in Champaign.

Writer-director Christine Swanson said Illinois has three things it needs: “a great crew base, a competitive tax credit and snow.” She is happy that local audiences will see this film first.

“I love exploring the complexities of storytelling with humor and pathos,” she said. “When done right, these types of stories transcend genre and time. My goal is to create a space for a deeper exploration of humanity in ways not often seen in stories featuring Black people. I am most proud that ‘Albany Road’ is a transcendent film that transcends race because it speaks to the soul of all humanity in a timeless way.”

On Thursday, director Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive,” “Under Siege”) brought his first film, 1978’s “Stony Island,” to the festival. It’s a joyful tribute to Chicago’s vibrant music scene, with lively songs ranging from jazz to blues, gospel, Hebrew prayer and Dixieland, all recorded live.

And it’s a time capsule of Chicago in the ’70s, as the characters visit the Lincoln Park Zoo, discuss the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley, drive on the L and drive along Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street, as well as the titular neighborhood.

Davis said making it taught him “that location can be a character and should be a character in your films. I’ve learned that it’s worth it to trust your gut, collaborate and take risks with unknown talent. I also learned that not having a lot of money can be an advantage.”

In the post-film Q&A session, Davis and his musical brother Richard, who stars in the film, talked about raising money (from Leonard Nimoy and ‘Chicago Gangsters’) and casting future stars Susannah Hoffs, Dennis Franz and Rae Dawn Chong. , as well as their own father.

"Stony island" star Richie Davis (left) is working on the 1978 film with his brother Andrew, the director.  Both appeared at an Ebertfest screening of the film on Thursday.

“Stony Island” star Richie Davis (left) is working on the 1978 film with his brother Andrew, the director. Both appeared at an Ebertfest screening of the film on Thursday.

One disappointment was that we couldn’t make it to the St. Patrick’s Day parade. “But I had to do it in ‘The Fugitive,’” Andrew said with a smile.

A highlight of the festival each year is a film from the era before films had sound, accompanied by the Anvil Orchestra, musicians and ‘sound artists’ who compose original scores for silent films. This year’s title is ‘Blackmail’ from 1929, directed by a young Alfred Hitchcock, still in London before moving to Hollywood.

Opening night Wednesday featured a screening of Bob Fosse’s “Star 80,” about the murder of an actress and a Playboy centerfold, followed by a Q&A with star Eric Roberts.

"Star 80" actor Eric Roberts shows the Golden Thumb he received on Wednesday from Ebertfest co-founder Chaz Ebert.

“Star 80” actor Eric Roberts shows the Golden Thumb he received on Wednesday from Ebertfest co-founder Chaz Ebert.

Director Malcolm D. Lee releases Friday with his beloved 1999 film “The Best Man,” an ensemble story with an almost all-black cast about a group of old friends who gather for a wedding, since followed by a sequel and a Peacock series.

There’s a lot of FOMO at most film festivals, as screenings in multiple locations with limited seating leave attendees constantly worried about what they missed. Ebertfest is unique in that there is only one screening at a time, always in the stately, 103-year-old Virginia Theater, where Ebert saw films as a child and as a student at the University of Illinois.

This shared experience creates an extraordinary sense of community that grows as attendees experience the films together. As festival director Nate Kohn explains it. “That togetherness in the dark, the shared experience of seeing a movie with others, builds community. New and lasting friendships blossom under the theater dome. And we like that more than anything.”

Chaz Ebert, who created the festival with her husband and still oversees it, said, “Neither Roger nor I could have imagined that EbertFest would still be going strong 25 years later! More than ever, EbertFest wants to bring people together. In the end it’s all about love.”

Nell Minow is a film critic and editor at Rogerebert.com.