For 13 years, Roger Ebert’s film festival, affectionately known as “Ebertfest” to regular attendees, has brought the film critic’s favorite overlooked films to his childhood home of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
While every year has showcased a new selection of guests and films, patrons will get to experience something that hasn’t been heard in six years: the sound of Ebert’s voice.
Ebert, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, was left unable to speak in 2006. But his wife, Chaz, noted one of this year’s special features in her speech at Wednesday’s opening night gala — a commentary track that will be played at Sunday’s showing of “Citizen Kane.”
“One more time, in the Virginia Theatre. His voice,” she said.
The 14th annual festival kicked off with the gala at the president’s house. Aside from Ebert and his wife, other attendees included guests from several of the films, sponsors and University administrators.
The event began with a presentation given by University president-designate Robert Easter, chancellor and vice president Phyllis Wise and other administrators.
Champaign Mayor Don Gerard was also present. He gave Ebert the key to the city, to which Ebert quipped, “When you get a key to the city, where is the lock?” via a message given to his wife.
The guests at the gala said they were eager for the film series.
David Graham, a first-time sponsor, said he was interested in seeing several of the films, including the Oscar-winning “A Separation” and the Indian film “Patang,” which he said is “supposed to be visually amazing.”
“After going for five years, I wanted to give back and be a sponsor,” Graham said.
Kelechi Ezie was excited to see her 13-minute short film “The Truth About Beauty and Blogs” on the big screen. It was shown at 10 p.m. at the Virginia Theatre. Ezie wrote, produced and starred in the film.
“The inspiration was my interest in reality TV and the kind of overexposure that everything is having now,” Ezie said.
Ezie’s film is about a self-obsessed YouTube blogger. While Ezie is not familiar with personally producing YouTube videos, she said she is an regular YouTube watcher and was inspired by online makeup tutorial videos.
This year’s festival is dedicated to Paul Cox. A director, Cox is the subject of “On Borrowed Time,” a documentary that will be screened Friday at 1 p.m.
Cox was thankful for the dedication, but he said the real honor was for Ebert.
“I think it’s amazing that with all his handicaps to still have the festival,” Cox said. “He’s the hero.”
The documentary follows Cox during a serious illness in which he required a liver transplant. He said the documentary began while he was still uncertain of his survival. Three years later, he has returned to Ebertfest and is a repeat attendee. His film “A Woman’s Tale” was shown in 2000, and two other works of his were shown over the decade.
The gala carried over to a showing of “Joe Versus the Volcano” at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, followed by “The Truth About Beauty and Blogs” and “Phunny Business: A Black Comedy.” Before the first movie, Ebert and Chaz made another appearance.
“He just wanted to come out and see you and says he knows he’s said this once before,” Chaz began. “But this is his happening, and it freaks him out!”