Onscreen and off, Ebertfest has a Uni twist this year
Alum filmmaker, student volunteers give renowned festival plenty of Uni connections
Published: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 - 11:28pm
CHAMPAIGN — This week marks the 11th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival ("Ebertfest" for short), formerly known as Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival.
Beginning tonight, movie fans will dine on a feast of 12 films shown over the next five days at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign. (See below for the schedule.)
Ebert, an Urbana native and Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, chose the movies and invited an assortment of directors, actors, and producers to speak about the films in Q&A sessions after each showing.
This year Uni students may be surprised to learn that some familiar faces will be working behind the scenes. Sophomore Stefanie Senior and freshman Aramael Pena-Alcantara have signed up to volunteer at the festival.
In addition, old-timers will recognize one of the featured filmmakers: Nina Paley, who attended Uni in the early to mid-1980s. Her animated film "Sita Sings the Blues" will be shown Saturday at 2:30 p.m., and she will discuss the movie immediately afterward.
Behind the scenes
Stefanie Senior and Aramael Pena-Alcantara will be volunteering at this year's Ebertfest. Gargoyle photo by Laura Dripps (click to enlarge)
Senior found volunteer work at Ebertfest while searching for opportunities on the Champaign Park District Web site.
Pena-Alcantara plans to work every day of the festival, while Senior is planning on volunteering during "Sita Sings the Blues" and the Sunday showing of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"
Volunteers at Ebertfest are divided into categories with duties that range from ushering to working concessions to crowd control, according to the festival’s Web site.
However, Pena-Alcantara will be volunteering under the category of "general volunteering," and Senior will be working under "miscellaneous."
"I'm not really sure what I'll be doing, but I know that I'm really familiar with the backstage of the Virginia, so whatever they need me to do, it's cool," Senior said.
Ebertfest begins tonight with a showing of "Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, The Director’s Cut" and concludes with "Baraka" on Sunday. A special showing of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" will be held at the Virginia immediately after the festival, sponsored by the Champaign County Anti-Stigma Alliance.
On the screen
Former Uni student Nina Paley visits her old school this afternoon. She's in town as a featured filmmaker at the 11th annual Ebertfest. Gargoyle photo by David Porreca (click to enlarge)
For fans of animation — and for those who simply revel in the joy of watching a creative mind at play — the Virginia is the place to be Saturday afternoon when Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues" takes to the screen.
Paley, who has been a professional artist since she was 18, would have graduated from Uni in 1986, but she went on to attend the University of Illinois before officially graduating.
That's what she recalled today when she dropped by Uni to take a look at her old school and to say hello to one of her favorite teachers, Chris Butler.
Now living in Brooklyn, Paley teaches at the Parsons School of Design.
Over the years, she has created several syndicated comic strips over the years, including "Fluff" (Universal Press Syndicate), "The Hots" (King Features), and her own weekly strip, "Nina's Adventures."
But even that description doesn't do justice to how brilliant and exuberantly unconventional the film is. Here's Ebert's take:
To get any film made is a miracle. To conceive of a film like this is a greater miracle. How did Paley's mind work? She begins with the story of Ramayana, which is known to every school child in India but not to me. It tells the story of a brave, noble woman who was made to suffer because of the perfidy of a spineless husband and his mother. This is a story known to every school child in America. They learn it at their mother's knee. Paley depicts the story with exuberant drawings in bright colors. It is about a prince named Rama who treated Sita shamefully, although she loved him and was faithful to him.
Of course there is a lot more to it than that, involving a monkey army, a lustful king who occasionally grows 10 heads, synchronized birds, a chorus line of gurus, and a tap-dancing moon. It coils around and around, as Indian epic tales are known to do. Even the Indians can't always figure them out. In addition to her characters talking, Paley adds another level of dialogue: Three voice-over modern Indians, ad-libbing as they try to get the story straight. Was Sita wearing jewelry or not? How long was she a prisoner in exile? How did the rescue monkey come into the picture? These voices are as funny as an SNL skit, and the Indian accent gives them charm: "What a challenge, these stories!"
Sita, the heroine, reminds me a little of the immortal Betty Boop. But her singing voice is sexier. Paley synchs her life story and singing and dancing with recordings of the American jazz singer Annette Hanshaw (1901-1985), a big star in the 1920s and 1930s who was known as "The Personality Girl." Sita lived around 1000 BCE, a date which inspires lively debate among the three Indians discussing her. But when her husband outrageously accuses her of adultery and kicks her on top of a flaming pyre, we know exactly how she feels when Annette Hanshaw sings her big hit, "Mean to Me."
There's much more, but that's enough to give you a sense of what to expect. Paley is a big advocate of freely distributing cultural work on the Web. Practicing what she preaches, she has made "Sita Sings the Blues" available online for anyone to watch for free. Sample it for a few minutes, and chances are you'll be hooked.
Then make a date for 2:30 Saturday at the Virginia.
Roger Ebert's Film Festival 2009 at a glance
Note: Tickets are $12 for each screening; student tickets are $10 each
- Wednesday, April 22
7 p.m. — "Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, The Director's Cut" (225 min.)
Guests: Michael Wadleigh, director; Dale Bell, producer
- Thursday, April 23
1:30 p.m. — "My Winnipeg" (80 min.)
Guest: Guy Maddin, director
4 p.m. — "Chop Shop" (84 min.)
Guest: Ramin Bahrani, director
8:30 p.m. — "Trouble the Water" (96 min.)
Guests: Carl Deal & Tia Lessin, directors/producers; Kimberly & Scott Roberts, film subjects
- Friday, April 24
1:30 p.m. — "Begging Naked" (80 min.)
Guest: Karen Gehres, director
4 p.m. — "The Last Command" (88 min.)
Live Music: Alloy Orchestra
8:30 p.m. — "Frozen River" (97 min.)
Guests: Misty Upham, actor; Courtney Hunt, director
- Saturday, April 25
11 a.m. — "The Fall" (117 min.)
Guest: Catinca Untaru, actor
2:30 p.m. — "Sita Sings The Blues" (82 min.)
Guest: Nina Paley, director, animator, etc
6:30 p.m. — "Nothing But The Truth" (108 min.)
Guests: Matt Dillon, actor; Rod Lurie, director
9:30 p.m. — "Let The Right One In" (114 min.)
Guest: Carl Molinder, producer
- Sunday, April 26
Noon — "Baraka" (96 min.)
Guests: Ron Fricke, director; Mark Magidson, producer
4:30 p.m. — "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" (118 min.)
Special screening: This film is free and will be shown following the close of Ebertfest; the screening is sponsored by the Champaign County Anti-Stigma Alliance, with a panel discussion after the film