- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2017

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, ILL. | “This is one announcement I never thought I’d have to make at Ebertfest,” Chaz Ebert, film critic Roger Ebert’s widow, said at the opening of Day 3 of Ebertfest, the film festival her late husband founded.

“Please [do] not use your cellphones during the movies,” she said.

It was a moment of levity as hundreds packed the Virginia Theatre, where Ebert, , the longtime film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, began his festival nearly 20 years ago, less than two miles from where he grew up in Urbana.

Ms. Ebert spoke first of Thursday night’s screening of “The Handmaiden,” South Korean director Chan-wook Park’s drama that features rather graphic same-sex scenes between two women that made the film so notorious.

“Anything that beautiful is not pornographic,” Ms. Ebert said of a Rhodes scholar friend describing the rather steamy film.

Sheila O’Malley, writer, of the short “July and Half of August,” introduced the day’s first showing, a short film about a man and woman who used to date getting a drink for the first time in five years since their brief relationship ended.

“I wanted it to be the kind of bar where people who have exes should not be meeting and catching up,” Ms. O’Malley said of the Glendale, California, setting.

Ms. Ebert presented Ms. O’Malley with a “Golden Thumb,” the award the festival doles out in memory of Ebert’s classic “thumbs ups,” the patented gesture of approval from himself and former TV co-host Gene Siskel.

Three documentaries are playing at the festival for the first time, Ms. Ebert said, introducing Ben Lear, who made the documentary “They Call Us Monsters,” about a screenwriting teacher who attempts to reach juvenile defenders in California’s jails awaiting trials as adults for rather horrific crimes.

“I think that the issue that he tackled is so important in our society today, and under the new administration, it’s even more important,” she said.

Mr. Lear thanked Ebertfest and Ms. Ebert for the invite, and spoke about the importance of the issue of youth imprisonment, as well as the programs where writing teachers teach classes throughout Los Angeles County’s juvenile criminal justice system.

“They’re mostly poetry and journalist classes to get them to explore themselves,” Mr. Lear said of the program that inspired his documentary. “Before this, I had never met anyone who had been incarcerated.

“I think meeting these kids in that context of an ‘inside-out’ writer’s class was really the inspiration for making the film, because I got to see them as students and teenagers.”

Mr. Lear spoke of sociologists’ research finding that the human brain does not fully develop until the mid-20s, thus calling lifetime punishments for juvenile offenders “cruel.”

“Eighteen is a very arbitrary number,” he said of the legal definition of adulthood.

Mr. Lear said the idea for “They Call Us Monsters” started out as his desire to make a fictional film set in prison, but while researching his subject, found that a documentary was more apt with the larger issue at hand. This led to educating himself about Senate Bill 260, a California bill passed in 2014 that allows juvenile offenders the chance to be paroled after a mandatory minimum sentence length of 15 years.

“The deeper and more removed you are, the deeper is the empathy once you are connected,” Mr. Lear said of the connection he found for his subjects.

Mr. Lear’s 94-year-old father, Norman Lear, will be present Saturday at Ebertfest for a showing of the documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.”

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