Each year, the Thursday and Friday slates at Ebertfest open with academic panel discussions, held at the student union of the University of Illinois, with the festival’s guests, film critics, and community experts talking about relevant issues that support the themes of the festival films. The two most interesting panel discussions this year both tackled the growing perception of a diversity problem in Hollywood: “#oscarssowhite: Diversity in Hollywood” and “Women in Film.” The panels included Gil L. Robertson and Shawn Edwards from the African American Film Critics Association, filmmakers Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) and Rebecca Parrish (Radical Grace), film critics Nell Minow and Jana Monji, and more. These two discussions in particular were among the most engaging that I’ve seen, despite only being scheduled for an hour each, not nearly enough time. Still, the panelists tackled these complex issues with depth and diversity of thought—the panel on diversity did very well to identify the problem as much more than black vs. white and extending much further than what we see on screen. Overall, it was a nice kick-off to a day screening a selection of three very diverse films.
One of Roger Ebert’s most famous quotes was calling movies a “machine that generates empathy.” Many of the selections for Ebertfest highlight this remark—many of films Ebert championed show the lives of the misunderstood, often those who are not like us. Many films have been made recently about the Israel-Palestine conflict—some are tense thrillers, some are heartbreaking documentaries—but there is no surprise that the film covering this subject, Disturbing the Peace, is among the most personal and hopeful of the festival.
Disturbing the Peace begins (and carries throughout) as an oral history of the conflict, with members on both sides speaking to their personal experiences which shape the greater issues. These stories are told over incredible archive footage spanning decades and reenactments to add cinematic structure to the narrative. You see right away the understandable anger from all of these participants: the young Israeli man who serves his required military term, the Palestinian woman whose family members are killed without legal recourse. All see violence and hatred with no compromise or predictable end.
The film then slowly transitions into a clear story on how all of these participants came together to create their social justice group Combatants for Peace. Each has a breakthrough through a personal experience that crystallizes their frustrations and moves them toward needing an outlet to speak out about the situation—none of them are the same, but have the same element of empathy. One particular man finds his breakthrough from film after watching Schindler’s List, realizing that these people were the grandfathers and grandmothers of those he is fighting. Interestingly, these parties who had very similar goals and outlooks were still very much instilled with fear as they came together, not sure if the olive branch could be a trap. Once they see each other, they build their relationships through the same personal stories and shared histories that the film used to introduce its narrative.
In the video introduction that ran before Disturbing the Peace, Roger talks about what types of movies make him cry. He says they aren’t the sad, melodramatic moments that intentionally tug at the heartstrings, but the moments of hope, the good and moral decisions that show the best of humanity. Disturbing the Peace, with its message of unity against oppression, is that kind of film. As the Middle East conflict becomes even more entangled and the films on the subject reflect that, this documentary shares a valuable perspective. By showing this message in an artistic documentary form, Disturbing the Peace was a nice surprise among the festival offerings.
After the screening, the filmmakers and subjects of the film were awarded the first Roger Ebert Humanitarian Award, a recognition that will continue for future festivals. If the selection committee can continue to find uplifting documentaries on challenging subjects while maintaining good filmmaking practices, it will no doubt become one of the every year highlights of Ebertfest.
Speaking of highlights of the festival, the next screening was the slotted spot for a silent film with live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. The three-piece band has become a regular attraction at the festival, bringing their latest silent film original score with them. With Marcel L’Herbier’s L’inhumaine (The Inhuman Woman), they have their most varied and sonic music that I’ve yet heard from them. This makes sense given the artistically complex film they are accompanying.
L’Herbier isn’t remembered as one of the great silent film directors, but he is without question one of France’s most important. In all, he made 58 films, spanning from 1917 to 1975, when the director was in his mid-80s. L’inhumaine involves a famous singer, called the “inhuman woman” for her otherworldly talents and beauty. She is courted by a number of powerful men, one of which commits suicide when she rejects him, causing her life and career to go into turmoil. The film is incredibly experimental, with notes of impressionism, wonderfully created sets and almost every trick ever used in silent film. L’Herbier plays with the form of the frame, changing its shape and size to emphasize what is being shot—an artistic exploration that has become trendy again.
The orchestra’s wide array of instruments include an organ, keyboards, full percussion, an accordion, and many other others indistinguishable by my untrained ears. The major themes returned to throughout the film are very powerful, with heavy drum beats and a low-toned organ, but with transitions to playful instrumentation to match performances in the film.
The most impressive section of their scores comes during the suicide of her scorned suitor, a scene which quickly cross-cuts between his troubled state and her nonchalant attitude. With each cut the instrumentation swiftly changed to underscore the psychology of each character—this isn’t an unusual concept for a silent film score (it’s basically the essential nature of one), but the quick transformations are amazing. As the scene goes on, the cuts become quicker and tighter, forcing the orchestra to stay nimble, changing their composition within seconds.
At another major moment of the film, where we see Claire sing for the first time, the orchestra employs an interesting tactic to convey this. Because her singing voice is strong enough to drive powerful men crazy, using any usual method would not be enough. So the Alloy Orchestra uses one of the most bizarre sounding instruments, the theremin, to give literal voice to the character. Initially it is such a wonderful surprise, delivering the same kind of shock that the film’s characters would have by hearing Claire’s voice. Eventually her song becomes transfixing, beautifully rhythmic, a unique use of the unusual instrument (with its science fiction connotations).
Seeing L’inhumaine with the Alloy Orchestra is a one-of-a-kind filmgoing experience. The film has received a recent 4k restoration, along with a Blu-ray release last December which includes the Alloy Orchestra soundtrack as an alternate track.
I was highly anticipating the final screening of the day, forgotten indie Eve’s Bayou, directed by Kasi Lemmons. Despite its critical acclaim and box office success ($14 million for a R-rated independent film was a huge score at the time), Lemmons has had little directorial work since—sadly, that’s the norm for minority women filmmakers. Set in Louisiana in the early 1960s, Eve’s Bayou is the portrait of a family, their traditions, and their tragic nature. The film is told through the eyes of young Eve as family structure begins to break apart. What could be a simple yet strong family drama is sparked with stylistic flourishes and mystical forces, providing a unique environment and tone.
Race is obviously an integral part of Eve’s Bayou, but it is more the story of a regional people. It is this type of film that needs to be highlighted in the talk for more diversity and fits in exceptionally well given the festival’s thematic interest. Eve’s Bayou is full of complex minority characters who have strong identities not solely defined by their “otherness.” It isn’t just a black story, but an American story, the film’s examination of a broken family is powerfully universal.
Samuel L. Jackson plays Eve’s father, a charismatic and popular community doctor whose eye often strays from his marriage. With his newfound career in supporting roles in cape-n-cowl films, we don’t often get to see Jackson in this type of role anymore, and may not remember how good he can be leading an emotional drama. His character is complicated, realistic father—not a perfect man, but even with his flaws, he unconditionally loves his family. The film does well not to condemn him while appropriately commenting on his selfish and hurtful behavior. As Eve’s Bayou introduces a major character twist, it quickly shifts implications and, through Eve’s point-of-view, our thoughts on his actions.
Similarly, the film is very attentive to how secrets can affect a family. Often children are supposed to be innocent and ignorant of their parents’ concerns, but Eve and her siblings have a sharp understanding of what is going on around them. They are sophisticated enough to know that people (even their beloved mother and father) can fall out of love and understand some of the nuance in that event. Eve is a particularly well-written child charac. When Eve, perceptive and overly emotional, smart yet just naive enough to create the film’s climactic conflict.
Much of the film’s mysticism comes into play in the second half, as Eve meets with a local voodoo priestess to help her deal with a problem. In some ways mysticism is a red herring, looked at as a nostalgic memory that is strongly tied to these characters and this place. It is even used as a comic effect, until Eve comes to realize that it might not be something to take lightly. Aside from the over-the-top voodoo character, Eve’s aunt is also shown to have a supernatural touch throughout the film. In a fantastic performance from Debbi Morgan, Mozelle is a cursed woman who has seen three husbands die. Despite having strange mental abilities, she is the most emotionally resonant character in the film, a completely heartbreaking role and performance.
Eve’s Bayou wasn’t exactly a surprise, as I’ve heard enough about the film over the years, but I can’t believe it isn’t referred to more often. It is just the kind of emotionally rich, well-written and performed, diverse type of film that should be fully entrenched in the canon of American independent cinema. To end his 4-star review, Roger quipped that “If [Eve’s Bayou] is not nominated for Academy Awards, then the academy is not paying attention.” Sadly, it did not, and that’s not a surprise, either.
The final full day of Ebertfest screens four more films: festival favorite Paul Cox’s new film Force of Destiny, social justice nun documentary Radical Grace, criminally overlooked 2015 music biopic Love & Mercy, and Brian De Palma’s thriller masterpiece Blow Out.