by James Berardinelli
From the April 26, 1999 Edition of the Chicago Sun-Times
Champaign-Urbana, IL - At 3:00 pm CDT on Thursday, April 22, a new entry into the international film festival circuit was born. Named after the world-renowned Chicago Sun-Times film critic who hand picked all 10 movies shown, Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival was an unqualified success. In fact, the enthusiasm and acceptance of the event virtually guarantees that the Overlooked Film Festival will become an annual Spring event, placed comfortably on calendars between late January's Sundance and mid May's Cannes.
All 10 features were shown at the historic Virginia Theater in Champaign-Urbana, a venue that opened in 1921 and seats 1400. Conservative estimates placed the total number of tickets sold around 6500. Approximately 350 festival passes (entitling possessors to admission to all films and events) were purchased at $30 each. The least-attended movies, the Thursday afternoon opener, Dance Me to My Song, and a Friday midnight screening of Kevin DiNovis' Surrender Dorothy, drew audiences of 500 and 600, respectively. The closing night science fiction offering, Tron, sold out. The ages of festival attendees spanned a range from about 5 to 80 (with many of the younger viewers attending only the Saturday morning screening of the family film, Shiloh). Perhaps surprisingly for a university town, college- age movie-goers didn't dominate the audience; at least half of those enjoying the event were in their 40s and 50s. And, while most of the festival-goers were locals, New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Toronto, Portland, Boston, Philadelphia, and Sydney (Australia) were among the distant locales that were represented.
There were several high points. The opening feature, Dance Me to My Song, stunned the audience with its unsentimental portrayal of the courage of a cerebral palsy victim (Heather Rose). Maborosi, an unforgettable depiction of a young Japanese woman's struggles with questions of fate and mortality, astounded viewers with its craftsmanship. The titanic performance of Max von Sydow in Hamsun, a biographical look t a Nobel Prize winner- turned-Nazi sympathizer, was riveting. And Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale enchanted everyone with its romance and comedy.
The format offered attendees the opportunity to do more than merely watch a series of great, overlooked films. Ebert personally gave a lengthy introduction to each movie, then returned afterward for a probing question-and-answer session with a panel that included (depending on the film) actors, directors, and/or critics. During the course of the festival, there were also several sessions addressing such diverse topics as "Independent Filmmakers," "Computers and Film," and "Women in Film." The overall atmosphere was comfortable, allowing audience members to interact freely with guests such as actors David Warner, Scott Wilson, and Heather Rose, and directors Kevin DiNovis, Steven Lisberger, and David D. Williams. Meanwhile, Ebert made himself available for everything ranging from impromptu analyses to autograph signings.
The outpouring of enthusiastic support was seemingly without bounds. One 50-year old woman was overheard calling the 10 features "the greatest single collection of films I have ever seen." Reacting to the festival's acceptance, Ebert offered the following comments: "It has been a big success. It proves that there's an audience for these kinds of films. Hopefully, this will challenge distributors to give movies like this a chance." He closed the proceedings by saying, "These overlooked films are overlooked no more!"
The 1999 festival was dedicated to Ebert's late friend and partner, Gene Siskel. As Ebert stated in one of his movie introductions, "Gene loved overlooked films. He was a champion of them." Indeed, two of the pictures shown, Shiloh and Tron, had been strongly supported by the recently-departed Chicago Tribune columnist. During several of his pre-screening and post-screening commentaries, Ebert invoked Siskel's memory, allowing the latter man to be present, if only in spirit. It was a fitting way to frame an event that offered an opportunity for movie-lovers to appreciate the best that cinema has to offer.
© 1999 James Berardinelli