The 21st Annual Ebertfest entertained, educated and enlightened audiences from around the country from April 10-13 in Champaign at the Virginia Theater.

Attendees not only saw films Roger Ebert loved but also films chosen by the festival’s programmers that would have made Ebert proud, such as Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.”

Festival Director Nate Kohn said, “These films combine to fulfill Roger’s vision for the festival and are the kind of films he wanted to showcase and champion.”

What makes this festival’s screenings even more special and keeps everyone coming back year after year are the guests, talent and informative, unpredictable and oftentimes hilarious Q&As after the films.

After a reception for festival supporters, Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack’s documentary, “Amazing Grace” transported viewers back to 1972, when Aretha Franklin performed at the New Bethel Baptist Church.

A discussion of the film occurred just before the film, and the icing on the cake was the performance of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir of Champaign-Urbana immediately after the film.

While each day, of course, was filled with film screenings and more Q&As with talent, critics and film industry professionals, Ebertfest hosted two panel discussions, free to attendees, which highlighted current socially relevant topics: inclusion and women in film.

Eric Pierson, professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego, moderated “The Alliance for Inclusion and Respect Panel: Challenging Stigma Through the Arts,” as film critic Matt Fagerholm, of RogerEbert.com, and experts in the field of addiction discussed the all-inclusive disease and its stigma in the community and in media.

The film “Rachel Getting Married” fell perfectly into place that afternoon to support the day’s discussion.

With the #MeToo movement, it was fitting for Chaz Ebert, co-founder of Ebertfest, to moderate a discussion with top female critics in the country: Nell Minow and Carla Renata; Jennifer Merin; president of the Alliance for Women Film Journalists and director Rita Coburn Whack (“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”); two of the festival’s guests, actresses Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly, of “Bound”; and Michael Barker, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics.

Merin and Coburn Whack imparted wisdom, insight and solutions to the inequalities in the film industry, and, as they brought these issues into sharp focus, they created an invitation for conversation with mainstream studio heads and film goers alike.

Twelve feature films and one short film encompassing a wide variety of genres were enjoyed by nearly sold-out audiences, from the silent film “Cœur Fidèle” with the Alloy Orchestra performing, the artistic masterpiece “Cold War” with Chicago film critic Michael Phillips and LA-based critic Renata discussing their thoughts with festival director Nate Kohn, and special guests for the classics “Cane River” and “A Year of the Quiet Sun.”

Audiences enjoyed hilariously unpredictable Q&As with “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” director David Mirkin and the stars from “Bound,” Gershon and Tilly, as well as special guest Virginia Madsen via Skype for “Sideways,” the closing night film with Ebert’s former co-host, Chicago’s Richard Roeper.

Guests received an award of the iconic “thumbs up,” but Neville received the prestigious Humanitarian Award, and, for the first time in the festival’s 21-year history, an Icon Award was presented. Coburn Whack graciously accepted for her film “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.”

Ebertfest allows participants to explore films in a new way, create new connections and perhaps even walk in another’s shoes, if only for a couple of hours. This empathy is key to Ebert’s life and the effect he and Chaz continue to have.

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