The day began with me setting out to rent a car. Usually the festival assigns each guest a host to help them get around for screenings, but this time I wanted to explore Champaign-Urbana with as much freedom as possible; to get to know Roger Ebert’s hometown more intimately. I couldn’t help but start with a place he was so fond of.
Arriving at Steak ‘n Shake unleashed a torrent of fond memories. Roger would always find time to invite his circle of friends several times during Ebertfest, even during the last few years when he lost his speech. All of us who were lucky enough to experience his invitations have come to link his favorite diner as a film family tradition.
I had a Steakburger Slinger for breakfast, a ridiculously large skillet of beef, beans, bread and potatoes. I was so stuffed that I didn’t have my next meal until 12 hours later (America, I don’t want to hear any complaints about food, y’hear?). But all throughout my breakfast, I couldn’t help but wish and wait for Roger to make his entrance, as he would so often do to much appreciation by everyone in the restaurant. I guess I’ll be forever waiting.
After catching up on some much needed sleep, it was off to the Festival’s Opening Gala held at the University President’s House, a ceremonial event where Ebertfest’s patrons and guests gather to officially kick off the week of films. It was great to reconnect with old acquaintances and friends, as well as meet and welcome newcomers. I was happy to chat with David Bordwell once more, this time having the pleasure of finally meeting his wife Kristin Thompson. If you met them for the first time, you would never think that they were the most formidable couple in the world of film criticism.
I caught up with Matt Zoller Seitz who brought along his loved ones. I always wanted to tell him how happy I was with the success of his book “The Wes Anderson Collection,” and the well-deserved praise it has received. Any cinephile will tell you what a remarkable labor of love it truly is. It was so satisfying to see him reaping its fruits. As the gathering grew, I gave my hugs to my fellow rogerebert.com writers Krishna Shenoi, Nell Minow and Omer Mozaffar. I also finally met fellow Far Flung Correspondent Jana Monji and her husband Ian Ono, as well as one of the newest member of our circle Sam Fragoso and his father Michael. Even now with Roger gone, his family is in many ways still growing.
I was too dumbstruck and shy to interact with some of the guests who had arrived. I could not believe that I was in the presence to the inimitable Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui, whom David and Kristin were escorting. She wasn’t noticed much by the gala crowd. But if this event were held in Hong Kong, she would be mobbed by throngs. I made a double-take when I realised Brie Larson walked past me and tried not to act like a fan when Patton Oswalt was around. One filmmaker whom I truly wanted to meet and thank was Haifaa al-Mansour, who earned my admiration with her work for WADJDA, but I did not spot her until late in the gala. Hopefully the fates will be kind Insha’Allah.
I mustered enough courage to speak briefly with the great documentarian Steve James, who would later present Roger Ebert’s autobiographical film LIFE ITSELF. I thanked him for his poignant and heartfelt direction and joked that he would probably be carried out by the audience on their shoulders by the end of the screening, which elicited a big laugh (yes!).
After Chaz had introduced the week’s special guests (whom you’ll hear more about in the next few days) and thanked all those who had made this year’s festival possible, it was off to the Virginia Theatre for the screening of LIFE ITSELF. Once there, the ever lovely Virginia Theatre was packed with people and anticipation, more so than any screening I’ve been two in the years I’ve been here. Steve James was warmly received by the audience as he introduced his movie, and showed us a deleted scene from the film where the focus was the festival itself.
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Before the actual film started, I experienced a brief epiphany as the trailer I had made for Ebertfest was showcased on screen. It is hard to put into words how fulfilling such an experience is. How the choices you make as a filmmaker pay off in shared empathy among those you share it with. I watched how the audience was in silence in listening to Roger’s voice one more time, explaining why he loved the movies so much. I heard their applause at the end and was in teary reverie as I thought to myself, “So this is what it’s like.” Omer rubbed my head in approval.
Then came the main event. As the movie unfolded it felt as if the audience was hanging on every scene and moment. I remember watching LIFE ITSELF on my laptop as it was being screened online on Indiegogo’s campaign. Seeing it alone was a solemn and somber experience, one of closure and reflection. But on the big screen with an audience, despite its moments of poignancy, it seemed to pulsate with life. Each viewer’s heightened expectation resulted in emotional release, and the culmination of this mass release raised emotions further. It was cathartic and made me appreciate the power of cinema as a shared experience even more.
As soon as Steve James’s name appeared in the end credits, thunderous applause met him. He came onto the stage along with Bill Nack, one of Roger’s best friends who is invaluable in the film, and Chaz Ebert who was clearly at a loss for words in appreciation of Steve’s efforts.
Steve and Bill immediately noted how different the film’s reception here at Ebertfest was unique. Every silence felt deeper. Every moment of laughter, richer. Ebertfest’s audiences have long been deeply tuned into Roger Ebert and what he loved. LIFE ITSELF’s reception was further proof of how truthful Steve James’s vision is of Roger’s life and legacy. The Q&A ended perfectly with Bill Nack reciting the final passage of “The Great Gatsby” to the audience from memory, as he had so often done for his friend Roger.
How I wish you could have been here Roger. Steve did you proud.