Thora Birch, Terry Zwigoff, Guillermo Del Toro and SOY CUBANA’s filmmaker Jeremy Ungar help cap off EBERTFEST 2022

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill.—The final two days of Ebertfest which ended on Sunday featured some great films in addition to stellar guests who spoke about their craft. Mostly, the invited guests discussed what motivated them to create their art, and the organizers also testified to what drives some of them to program the films they do.

Chaz Ebert kicked off Friday’s program by introducing Jason Delane Lee and Yvonne Huff Lee, actors living in Los Angeles—although Jason, an Illinois native, got a cheer from an appreciative Land of Lincoln crowd—who were here with a short film entitled “Lifeline.” Jason, who wrote and co-directed the short, based it on his own experiences of being a Black man adopted into a white Midwestern family.

“I’m an actor first, and I knew I needed to do something creative to deal with and examine that,” he said of channeling those emotions into his fictional avatar, called Lee in the film. “It was the seventies and I knew I was different. I’m of German and West African descent, but now I identify as a Black person.”

In “Lifeline,” Lee gets a nudge from his wife Gabrielle, played by Jason’s real-life spouse Yvonne Huff Lee, to find his birth father before it’s too late. The couple’s children also play the kids of the fictional couple.

Jason said his adopted parents blessed his search, and he did have a relationship with his birth parents in the end. However, the plot thickened when DNA proved that Jason’s “real” father was actually not his biological father.

“In the real world it’s the constant search for who am I,” said Yvonne, who is herself of Filipina and Black. She also said that her real-life husband “went down a rabbit hole of searching for his history”—and this was something they talked about with their own children. “We know as parents [our children] will be treated differently,” she said. “We involve them in our own journey of what our identity is and let them know it’s a lifetime journey.”

“Our kids, if you look at them, it’s amazing how genetics plays out,” added Jason, saying that their daughter is dark-skinned but their son looks almost German “with an Afro.” “We are also Black Americans, so we do want to raise them with…global awareness.”

Jason, now 50, has undergone a series of losses. His adopted parents have since died, as have his birth parents, who were unvaccinated and fell victim to covid.

I asked the couple if they planned to turn “Lifeline” into a feature. Jason thanked me for the question and said that they are exploring how to incorporate the incredible turn that his own “real” father proved to be not his biological sire.

“My hope is that with explorations like this of identity and who we are…hopefully we can get back to a more decent, humane kind of place,” Jason said during the post-screening Q&A. “In order to do that we have to know who we are and where we come from.”

Friday evening’s feature was “Ghost World,” director Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel about two disaffected recent high school graduates. Zwigoff, who had earlier participated in the Q&A following “Gilbert,” absolutely broke the room by playing audio of himself on Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast, in which Gottfried read aloud a review of “Ghost World” published on a far-right, antisemitic website. Zwigoff—who, like Gottfried, is Jewish—was in tears from laughing so loudly. The audio clip served not only as a fine intro to his film but as yet another wonderful tribute to the recently departed Gottfried, who had been booked to be at Ebertfest.

Following the screening, Zwigoff and “Ghost World” star Thora Birch recalled stories of making the film two decades ago. “Ghost World” was Zwigoff’s first narrative film. He first came to Roger Ebert’s attention when he made “Crumb,” the documentary about the underground artist Robert Crumb. Zwigoff shared that Crumb’s daughter Sophie produced the angsty drawings that were in the notebook of Birch’s character, Enid.

Birch, who had at the time recently starred in the 1999 best picture winner “American Beauty,” was only 18 during the filming of “Ghost World.”

“I got so in the mindset of Enid that when we wrapped I couldn’t shake it loose,” said Birch, who added she also gained weight for the role but “overcorrected” in doing so. “[Enid] had infested my actual life.”

Birch’s co-star in “Ghost World” was a younger actress from New York named Scarlett Johansson. Birch said she and Johansson developed a friendship before filming commenced that helped the pair better develop their angsty characters. Fellow New Yorker Steve Buscemi also played a major supporting role in the film.

Test audiences for “Ghost World” in 2001 were unkind, and the studio didn’t quite know how to market the film. Then 9/11 happened, further posinging the movie’s run.

“I saw it and my headspace was like shit, I’ll never work again,” Birch said of her initial reaction to seeing herself in the finished film.

However, “Ghost World” did find its audience, however limited. And Zwigoff shared fun stories from the set, including that he tried to hire Lawrence Tierney for a role—only to learn that his producer had a restraining order against the notoriously hotheaded character actor. Zwigoff did meet with Tierney for an audition in the end, but said that Tierney got right in his face and even “playfully” threatened his co-writer Clower.

Zwigoff added that William Hurt and Gary Shandling also auditioned for the role that eventually went to Buscemi.

An audience member asked if Zwigoff purposely had Bob Balaban, who played Birch’s father in the film, eat his food in the film in a fashion that was so amusing. Zwigoff chuckled and said it was “the greatest question about this film I’ve ever heard” about “Ghost World.”

“It’s always helpful for the performance,” he said of the potential comedy of onscreen eating.

Saturday morning began with the traditional Ebertfest screening of a silent movie joined with live music. Chaz Ebert and the programmers chose “Siren of the Tropics,” a film from 1929 starring Josephine Baker, a Black American actress who found success working in France. Chaz announced that in 2021 Baker had even been inducted posthumously into the French Pantheon by President Emmanuel Macron.

“The honor for her was triple because she was [also] the first Black woman to be inducted and the first American-born person to be inducted,” said Chaz, adding that Baker initially faced similar prejudice in France as she had in America before becoming successful as a performer there.

Renée Baker and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project played a spirited score from the pit of the Virginia Theater alongside the silent film. The ensemble also added in live cheers for scenes of crowds applauding, as well as various percussion for the scenes of Baker’s character, Papitou, in her West Indian habitat. “Siren of the Tropics” is problematic to our modern eyes considering that it fetishizes Papitou and the title cards of her speaking are in broken “native” patois. However, Chaz Ebert said after the screening that it was important to look at the film as a time capsule of its era.

“Josephine Baker was considered ‘hypersexualized’ but she became [a force] for civil rights,” Chaz said.

The University of Illinois’s own Dr. Douglas Arnell Williams—who also moonlights as an actor in films such as “The Trial of the Chicago 7”—said during the post-screening chat that Baker’s breaking of barriers as a woman of color in the 1920s could not be overstated.

“She’s barely twenty. She’s in another country. But she is very much a presence” in the film, he said. “She’s engaged, looking back at the audience.”

“Don’t think she landed in Paris and became a star overnight,” added Renée Baker, who had led the live orchestra in a score she herself had composed. “She was thought of as ‘ugly’ in America, and the same thing was true when she went abroad. She had to sustain her identity as a person of color and to do what came to her naturally.”

Renée Baker is no relation to Josephine Baker, but as a person of color herself, she said it was important to maintain such “historical documents” as “Siren of the Tropics” so that people can continue to experience such representation.

“How many women of color are going around scoring silent films?” Baker said, which drew laughter and applause.

Renée Baker added that she specifically chose slow-motion closeups of Josephine Baker dancing to bookend the film so that audiences could behold the actress’s poise and beauty for just a few moments—with musical accompaniment.

“I just wanted you to identify with her—not watch her butt [but] just focus on a woman who thought she was ugly when she left” the United States, Baker said. “She was gorgeous and she was honorable, a political person, an aware person.

“I just wanted you to see that she did more than shake her behind in fighting for civil rights [and] in being part of the French Resistance.”

Chaz Ebert added that she wouldn’t have shown “Siren of the Tropics” at Ebertfest even a decade ago, but current discussions about critical race theory were part of the reason she changed her mind.

“Now I believe as long as it’s something that we see value in as a history lesson or entertainment” that it’s good for Ebertfest, she said, adding that entertainers as diverse as Lucille Ball and Diana Ross have cited Josephine Baker as an inspiration.

Indeed, Renée Baker said that she even wrote a full score for “Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s notorious 1915 film that not only defined much of the cinematic language of the then-new artform, but was also incredibly racist in its depiction of Black people and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan.

“I scored that movie in 2016, and I tell you I made people sit through the whole three hours and thirteen minutes,” Baker said. “We know D.W. Griffith was an equal-opportunity bigot, because if you look at his filmography there was no ethnicity that was left unscathed. But it’s history. There were lots of racists at that time and there’s lots of racists now, but I wanted people to see that move in today’s context.

“[Griffith] was a brilliant filmmaker. You’re still going to take offense at it [but] it’s history.”

“I don’t know if we’re going to show it at Ebertfest,” added Chaz, to laughter.

Baker responded: “That might be the end of your festival.”

Before the afternoon screening of “Krishna,” a film about addiction, Chaz shared that she has been sober for thirty-five years. She and Roger Ebert were able to maintain their sobriety together, but she said it remains a challenge to do so even now.

“I hated, hated being a mother who was also an alcoholic,” Chaz said. “The love Roger and I had for each other was strengthened by the bonds we learned in our recovery. I didn’t plan to say this but I felt compelled…because Roger, if he had been here, would have said it.”

“Soy Cubana” director Jeremy Ungar and his mother Robin Miller Ungar, who served as his producer on the documentary, later introduced their documentary about a Cuban quartet of singers making their first trip to perform in the United States. Robin had seen the group in Cuba and impressed upon her son Jeremy and her husband Gary to make the doc, which was shot in Santiago de Cuba, home of the Afro-Cuban sound that emerged from the descendents of enslaved Africans mixing with the descendants of the colonizing French and Spanish musical traditions.

“We landed in Havana and heard these voices,” said Robin Miller Ungar, who has a background as a speech pathologist specializing in brain injuries. “It was one of those moving experiences where you get goosebumps and think ‘this is just too good not to share with the world.’”

Jeremy, who initially filmed a short doc as proof of concept to share with financial backers, said the full film premiered virtually at SXSW in 2021, and that the Ebertfest screening would be the largest in-person audience to yet see his movie.

“Until that point I’d only worked in narrative films,” Jeremy said, adding that the feature-length version of “Soy Cubana” has yet to screen in Cuba. The screening of “Soy Cubana” was followed by a musical performance by the University of Illinois.

The closing feature was Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” which was screened in 35mm black-and-white. Del Toro and “Nightmare Alley” co-screenwriter Kim Morgan, who are married in real life, had been scheduled to attend the screening before a medical procedure for del Toro this week kept them away. Nonetheless, Chaz Ebert and festival director Nate Kohn played a pre-recorded video interview with the pair about making their Oscar-nominated movie, which stars Bradley Cooper as a “mentalist” who teams up with a conwoman (Cate Blanchett) to fleece a rich man (Richard Jenkins) by claiming he can contact the man’s deceased daughter—for a fee, of course.

Del Toro said he and Fields were interested in the art of the con in our post-truth world, and what del Toro called “the flipside of reality.”

“We are at the same time civilized and cruel with each other,” he said in the prerecorded video. “As a storyteller you always question the way you approach something, and you try to lead with the truth.”

“The idea of addiction goes hand in hand with wanting more and more,” added Fields, who said that the writer of the novel “Nightmare Alley,” William Lindsay Gresham, suffered from alcoholism as much as Cooper’s character does. Gresham ultimately committed suicide in the same New York hotel room where he had written the novel, leaving behind a card that said “you’d rather die than face the truth.”

“At some point we decided that the novel was autobiographical,” concurred del Toto. “Every character in the novel is a part of Gresham. We decided the film was building to a finale, [which is] the truth” that Cooper’s character has been avoiding the entire time.

The Oscar-winning director said that during the pandemic, he watched the footage he’d already shot for “Nightmare Alley” in black-and-white “out of pure tedium.” When the film company could eventually reconvene safely, he shot the remainder in both formats, though the studio ultimately opted to release the film in color.

“I’m 58 almost, and I was giddy to have a film in 35mm B&W,” he said.

Del Toro said that it’s not so much that people are fooled but rather that they want to believe something false. That’s why we enjoy magic tricks, he said, and why we create our own online echo chambers of similarly minded people.

“We talk about addiction with success,” the native of Mexico said. “I always say the American dream comes with a knife. I think this is an addiction.”

Chaz Ebert and Nate Kohn thanked everyone on the final evening of the festival for returning to its first in-person event since 2019. As part of their signoff they announced the festival will return again April 19-22, 2023.

“You got on a bus or a train and made your way here,” Chaz said to cheers. “You talked to each other and you welcomed our filmmakers so warmly.”