On the arm of his wife, Chaz, Roger Ebert slowly made his way to the wood podium. The 1,500 film buffs filling the Virginia Theatre in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, surged to their feet, their clapping momentarily drowning out his mechanical whisper, the only voice left to him by cancer.
But we settled back down quickly, eager to hear what Roger had to say. This would be his only public appearance at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, Ebertfest to some. It was 2012 and Roger made few public appearances due to declining health. But how could he miss the film festival he’d been hosting here in his alma mater’s hometown since 1999?
He simply thanked everyone for coming to see films he thought deserved more attention than the public gave them. It was the “everyone” that most impressed me.
I sat beside a 20-something who came 4,000-plus miles from Newfoundland, Canada. The trip to Ebertfest was all he wanted for college graduation. His goal is to be a film critic, and his excitement at hearing Roger Ebert was obvious in the way he pulled his glasses from his nose and waved them around as he talked about his hero.
But it turns out his wasn’t the longest trip. Roger greeted actors from Rwanda and Iran, directors from Australia, fellow critics from Turkey and England, bloggers from Canada and Egypt. This humble University of Illinois graduate, who made his name as America’s best-known film critic on TV and at the Chicago Sun-Times, drew people from around the world ostensibly to see the movies he considered underrated. But seeing Roger himself was, of course, much of the draw.
His was the quiet voice of a Midwest kid who loved telling the world about the movies. Though he died just days before the 2013 festival, his voice echoes on at 2014 Ebertfest. Steve James' (below) new documentary about Roger, Life Itself, will be one of the 12 films shown at this year’s festival, April 23-27. Tickets are on sale now, and the lineup of films will be announced in March. (217) 244-0552; ebertfest.com
Ebertfest photographs by Thompson.McClellan