Ebertfest provides behind-the-scenes access to students, deepens collaborations with community

Filmmaker Rita Coburn at Urbana High School
Rita Coburn Whack, third from left, screened her film about Maya Angelou and discussed it with Urbana High School students. (Photo courtesy of the Alliance for Inclusion and Respect.)


In April, director Rita Coburn Whack spent an afternoon with Urbana High School students for a special screening of her Peabody Award-winning documentary Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, one of the featured films at Ebertfest 2019. 

For an hour afterward, students asked questions “with a curiosity and hunger for information about their evolving culture,” Coburn recalled.

“They wanted to imagine the times Maya Angelou lived in and compare them to their own. They bristled at the racism she endured, lamented that she was sexually abused, and were inspired by her resilience,” Coburn said.

“Often I hear so much about what young people don’t know and what they don’t care about. … Young people did not enter the earth with this knowledge; it is our job to teach them in various ways, through documentaries, through the Internet, in the classroom.”

Coburn was accompanied by film critic and Illinois alumnus Eric Pierson (BFA ’83, FAA; PhD ’00, Media), professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego, who also shared insights about the movie industry and movie production.

For several years now, Roger Ebert’s Film Festival—co-founded by the late Roger (BS ’64, journalism) and his wife, Chaz, in 1999—has expanded its outreach to local schools and the Champaign-Urbana community, and it has incorporated more hands-on opportunities for College of Media students. 

“The audience for Ebertfest and the communities of the University of Illinois and Champaign-Urbana have grown the festival into what it is today, and we always try to honor those bonds by cultivating collaboration when we can,” said Andrew Hall, the College of Media’s project coordinator for Ebertfest.

Ebertfest organizers bring filmmakers and film critics to Urbana High School (which Roger Ebert had attended) to promote careers in the industry and to help create media literacy. 

“One of the most enriching aspects of film is the empathy it generates for others. Roger famously said that film allows the viewer to walk in another’s shoes,” Hall said. “By showing diverse films to high schoolers, we hope we are giving them empathy across some of the divisions our society creates.” 

Empathy is one of the core values for Ebertfest. 

“The mission of Ebertfest has always been to build community across a really broad audience,” Hall said. 

Ebertfest has a growing partnership with Champaign County Alliance for Inclusion and Respect to choose movies that emphasize antistigma themes. Director Julie Dash’s 1991 movie, Daughters of the Dust, which shows the turmoil of an American Gullah family, and director Rick Goldsmith’s Mind/Game: The Unique Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw, a documentary that follows a professional athlete’s journey to overcome and fight against the stigma of mental illness, are movies that have been shown in Urbana High School in recent years. 

At Ebertfest itself, opening night 2019 featured a sold-out performance by the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir of Champaign-Urbana that followed the Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace.

“As part of the annual MLK celebration organized by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Advocacy for Justice Committee, that choir has been integral in raising thousands of dollars in university scholarships for local high school children,” Hall explained. “When we can collaborate with and give a stage to a group doing such good things, it helps Ebertfest complete its mission too, which is to be a film festival that doesn’t just show good films but one that also tries to be a source for good in its community.”

As the College of Media has increased its production course offerings in the Department of Media & Cinema Studies, more opportunities have become available to provide hands-on experiences for students. They make television commercials for the festival and create trailers that precede the screenings. 

Journalism and advertising students also get portfolio-building opportunities, such as interviewing famous filmmakers, writing press releases, creating social media posts, helping with public relations and marketing tasks, and more. 

“The involvement of the college’s inspired students is great for Ebertfest,” Hall said, “but it also gives those students that do get involved an experience that few other schools can match.”

Festival passes are now on sale at ebertfest.com. The 22nd annual Ebertfest will run April 15-18, 2020, at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign. To donate to the festival, please see ebertfest.com/become-sponsor.

—Holly Rushakoff