- Associated Press - Monday, April 4, 2016

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - As an Ebertfest hostess, Amani Ayad ferried around a festival guest in 2014 whom she had never heard of before.

Of course, before heading to Willard Airport to pick her up, Ayad did some research - and washed her Nissan Rogue.

Two years later Ayad would see the actress, Brie Larson, pick up the Academy Award for best actress for portraying a captive mother in “Room.”

“Who would have thought I would host an Oscar-winning actress?” Ayad said.

“She was so genuine and at the same time serious about her work for her age. I thought she was a very good actress when I saw her movie at Ebertfest and she did really well on the panel” after the screening.

Ayad, who lives in Champaign, has hosted Roger Ebert’s Film Festival guests every year since 2003.

If her guest stayed all five days of the festival, she would take time off work. But she doesn’t have to worry about that now: She’s retired from the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, where she coordinated a program that recruited under-represented students.

Ayad has enjoyed being an Ebertbest host and will do it again for the 18th Ebertfest, running April 13-17 at the Virginia Theatre and on campus.

She and the more than dozen other hosts - all have been lined up for the 2016 festival - pick up their guests at and take them back to the airport and to and from their hotel and to festival events.

They make sure their charges arrive on time for screenings and discussions. The only time Ayad was worried about being late was the two years the Illinois Marathon had blocked off some of the streets.

As an unpaid volunteer, Ayad is not reimbursed for her gas and mileage but receives a regular festival pass, valued at $150 this year.

A couple of guests over the years have left their VIP passes with her after she dropped them off at the airport. But Ayad didn’t use them, preferring to sit with her friends rather than in the festival VIP section at the Virginia.

As a festival hostess, she is invited to the VIP parties. Because they’re late at night, she usually doesn’t attend except when driving her guests to them.

Like most of the festival-goers who see all 12 or more movies, she feels exhausted at the end of each day, after having seen three or four movies in a row.

Like many people in C-U, Ayad was unaware of the first Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, a UI College of Media event. It took place in 1999.

By the time the second one rolled around the next year, she knew the program included the Iranian film “Children of Heaven.”

“I was so surprised at how in this small community an Iranian film was to be shown and at how Roger, a person who grew up here (Urbana), brought all these neat movies here.” She began seeing the Ebertfest movies and after the 2001 festival decided she wanted to be a host.

“A friend of mine was a host and told me she had a great experience and had the most intellectually stimulating conversations with her guests,” Ayad remembered.

Ayad emailed the festival associate director and had her name put on the list.

Ayad remembers her first guest, John Bard Manulis, executive producer of “Charlotte Sometimes,” a movie made by Asian-Americans, as “extremely personable.

“He asked about my origin and how I came to the U.S.,” said Ayad, a native of Egypt.

“All of my guests have been excellent,” she added.

Each year, she doesn’t know whom she will host until two weeks before the festival, when she receives her assignment and the guest’s or guests’ schedules.

After she meets them at Willard Airport, she tells them she’s always available to them.

“I am your point person. Get in touch. Whatever you need.

“Part of it is they’re here and they’ve never been here before. It has a different feel than Hollywood or New York.”

Some of the guests, among them Jennifer Arnold, writer-director of “A Small Act,” and Patti Lee, her producer and director of photography for the documentary, do their homework before landing here in 2011.

“They came prepared and they knew where they wanted to go for dinner,” Ayad said. “They wanted to go to Escobar’s. Unfortunately their plane was late so we had to find somewhere different because Escobar’s was closed. We went to Crane Alley because I knew it was open late.”

During her second year, Ayad ended up squiring around more guests than she had expected.

She had been assigned director Gregory Nava, who brought his movie “El Norte,” in ‘04. His wife, Anna Thomas, producer of the movie about two Mayan siblings making their way to California, had been given another host.

They had their son with them.

“They didn’t want that so I ended up having all three with me all the time,” Ayad said.

Most of the guests, while riding in Ayad’s SUV, chat about their Ebertfest movie, their other work and their backgrounds. Some quiz her about the festival.

One did something a little different while riding in Ayad’s car.

“Claire Sardina is a singer from Milwaukee who came with the Sunday movie ‘Song Sung Blue’ in 2010. She would sing in my car. She asked if it was OK and I said, ‘Sure.’ It was delightful. It was lovely.”

Another musician Ayad hosted, Jocko Marcellino, a longtime member of Sha Na Na, came in 2009 with the director’s cut of “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music.”

“He was also quite interesting,” Ayad remembered. “He wanted to go to the best burger place in town.” She took him to the Courier Cafe.

Many Ebertfest guests know Roger Ebert was a big fan of Steak ‘n Shake so ask Ayad and the other hosts to take them there. During the festival’s earlier years, Ayad would see Roger Ebert, who died in 2013, eating at the restaurant, usually late at night or early in the morning, with the movie makers and other guests.

Ayad has had no problems with any of her guests. But in 2008, guest Tarsem Singh, director of “The Cell,” put her on the spot.

He asked after the screening whether she had liked his film.

“I didn’t really understand the movie,” she said. “I told him ‘I don’t know’ to be on the positive side. I told him I would watch it again to understand what was going on in the movie.” (She admits she never did.)

Ayad has even become friends with a few of her guests, among them Sabrina Lee, a Montana-based filmmaker who brought “Not Yet Begun to Fight” to the 2013 festival.

The documentary tells of Retired Marine Col. Eric Hastings, who helped returning veterans heal from the traumas of war by teaching them fly-fishing in his state of Montana.

“We just hit it off really well,” Ayad said. “We talked about everything, war and peace, family, love and loss.”

Two months after the festival, Ayad unexpectedly encountered Lee and her family having breakfast at a hotel near O’Hare, where Ayad was attending a conference.

Lee had spotted her Ebertfest hostess in the hotel restaurant.

“She came over and insisted I sit with her and her husband and daughter.”

Last year, Ayad clicked with ReBecca Theodore-Vachon, who runs the blog FilmFataleNYC. The critic was part of the post-screening discussion of “Girlhood,” a French feature about an all-girl gang in the Paris projects.

The two are now Facebook friends.

Over the years, Ayad hasn’t received any unusual requests from the guests. One wanted to shop at a vintage clothing store. Four guests wanted to see Ebert’s childhood home on East Washington Street in Urbana. She took them there.

She’s even been surprised a few times by her charges.

“To me it’s amazing to think about people in the movie business who know how to put themselves together but they’re people like us,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Is this tie OK? Is the color OK? Should I change my tie?’ ‘No, you look great.’

“I try to be very flexible and accommodating without being in their way. I try to provide support and at the same time be in the background rather than all the time asking them what they want to do. It’s a very fine balance.”

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Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, https://bit.ly/1RzHFFJ

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Information from: The News-Gazette, https://www.news-gazette.com


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