As several people noted, 1989 was a remarkable year for movies and Ebertfest paid tribute to two of the best, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and Oliver Stone’s “Born on the 4th of July.” Even for those who know the films well, seeing them projected onto the Virginia Theater’s giant screen was revelatory. “It’s criminal to watch a movie on your iPhone,” said Lee, who was especially happy to have a pristine 35 mm print to show.
Lee spoke about the reaction to his film when it was released, from Roger Ebert angrily saying he would never return to Cannes because they passed over “Do the Right Thing” to give their top award to “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” to other critics who worried that the movie would inspire riots. Many talked about the destruction of the pizzeria owned by the Italian character. But none mentioned the police brutality that led to the death of the black character. (Chaz Ebert said that she still has Lee’s letter to Ebert, telling him to go back to Cannes, despite the snub for the film.) His next film, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” was funded via Kickstarter. He told the audience that was just a high-tech version of the kind of crowd-funding he has done with all of his films. “It just used to be phone calls and postcards.”
Oliver Stone, whose career will be covered in a new book from rogerebert.com editor Matt Zoller Seitz, appeared with his 1989 classic, “Born on the 4th of July.”
One of the highlights of each Ebertfest is a silent film accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra. This year, we saw “He Who Gets Slapped,” the first film completed by the brand-new studio MGM, with breakthrough performances by Norma Schearer, Lon Chaney, and John Gilbert and stunning direction from Swedish director Victor Seastrom (Sjöström).
Three of the films presented at Ebertfest were directed by women. Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda,”the story of young girl struggling against the restrictions imposed on women in Saudi Arabia, was a favorite of the crowd. Al-Mansour, who also wrote the film, spoke about the restrictions she herself faced. She had to sit inside a van to direct the film so she would not be seen giving orders to men. She was grateful for the support of her family, who believed she could do whatever she wanted. “The little freedom I had allowed me to dream.”
Director Ann Hui appeared with “A Simple Life,” based on the true story of the reversal of roles when a long-time domestic servant has a stroke and the man she has cared for all his life must take care of her. She told us, “I was more moved by Roger Ebert’s review of my film than by my film itself.”
Lily Keber presented her documentary about New Orleans musician James Booker, “Bayou Maharajah,” followed by a live performance by one of the musicians featured in the film, Henry Butler.
A trailer for the festival by Michael Marisol was played before each film. A commencement address by Roger Ebert with his thoughts on the way movies contribute to empathy and understanding is intercut with scenes from the selected films, including the documentary about Ebert, “Life Itself.” It became one of the festival’s most beloved entries.