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Championing the Overlooked, Unappreciated at Ebertfest

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It's not every day that 1,500 people come together to watch a movie generally regarded as a box office disaster.

But at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, that's precisely the kind of underdog spirit the crowd lives for — a spirit driven in part by their hunger for great films, but also partly by a desire to thumb their noses at movie studio executives who claim to know what audiences want. As Ebert said during a post-film discussion, reacting to a suggestion that a studio didn't think one of the festival's 12 selected titles would appeal to the youth market: "We cannot be held captive to a bunch of illiterate 16-year-olds."

Since 1999, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic has purged his frustration by programming an annual collection of films he considers to have been overlooked by the marketplace. ôOverlooked can mean several things. Some are films that never found their audience in the movie theaters; others were never picked up by a distributor; still others are in film idioms that are simply considered archaic — silent films or 70mm spectacles, for example.

Audiences who gathered this year at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign last weekend were fascinated by David Mamet's enigmatic Spartan, and John Malkovich's performance as a shrewd killer in Ripley's Game, But it was perhaps the least known film of all, the coming-of-age comedy Somebodies, that sent this crowd — a mix of local residents, visiting Ebert fans and industry VIPs — into hysterics. A low-budget digital comedy produced by festival director Nate Kohn and filmed in Georgia, where Kohn teaches film, the film was written by one his students. Three months after it had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Ebert introduced Somebodies to his Overlooked audience as an affectionate film that liberates its characters from the stereotypes of most mainstream stories about black culture.

Ebert showered all his overlooked favorites with praise. He said it was a "crime" that Malkovich's performance in Ripley's Game was never seen in American movie theaters; he hailed Lodge Kerrigan, director of Claire Dolan, a drama about a prostitute, as a personal "hero" who makes only the films he wants to make the way he wants to make them; and he hailed Junebug as a "spiritual and transcendental" experience, after revealing that a bout with food poisoning caused him to fall asleep during the film's initial screening at Sundance.

Unlike most film festivals, the Overlooked Film Festival is not about the buzz of the hot new thing, but about celebrating past achievements that missed the buzz. Because of this, the atmosphere at the festival is more celebratory than critical. "You see more good movies in four days here than you usually do in six months or even a year of going to the theater," said one festival goer, waiting in line for concessions at the restored Virginia Theater, a classic movie palace in downtown Champaign. "That's why I keep coming back."

And fans came back in record numbers this year. Festival passes — which are limited to 1,000 — sold out more than three months before opening night, and long lines of fans waited through winds, rain and cold in hopes of grabbing one of the few remaining seats.

Filmmakers are finding the festival an increasingly attractive place to get rediscovered. "I've been approached by so many directors who have said they've never seen their film projected on such a big screen and in front of such a large audience, and appreciative audience," Ebert said.

Mark Danford-May, writer and director of U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, based on a South African opera, which premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival but has yet to find an American distributor, said he believes the film's inclusion at Ebert's festival will be a big help. "His support really can help open doors," Danford-May said. "We're hoping to find an American distributor, and after being picked to come here, we know that his opinion matters."