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“Roger Ebert could see the best in any film”: Filmmakers Tell Indiewire Why They Loved Roger Ebert

"Roger Ebert could see the best in any film": Filmmakers Tell Indiewire Why They Loved Roger Ebert

Throughout the week, Indiewire will feature remembrances of Roger Ebert from across the industry. Today, we’re focusing on the filmmakers.

Jennie Livingston, director, “Paris is Burning”

Siskel and Ebert gave my film “Paris is Burning” two thumbs up, which is was so excellent and surreal (my first film! a nonfiction film! a queer film!) I could barely process it. But it was, hands-down, the main thing people PR people wanted to use to legitimize the film. (In this day and age, I’d post it on social media and brag, but back in 1991, you demurely let the PR people handle which facts were helpful.)

I was on a press tour with Willi Ninja, a voguer and one of the main people in “Paris is Burning” and we went on Ebert’s show in Chicago. I remember that Ebert was kind of grumpy towards me (I’m not sure why – he clearly liked the film enough to stick his thumb up) which was disappointing, but solicitous towards Willi, which was lovely, since a few of the interviews we did involved people treating me like the filmmaker and Willi like “the subject.” (Perhaps Mr. Ebert was our moment of reverse karma!)

The other memory I have is of Mr. Ebert receiving an award at the Gothams awards when I was on a jury — maybe six years ago? His wife read his statement. He was out there, wearing a neck brace, and I remember thinking, “How many people with a visible illness would just stay home to preserve an image?” (My mother, who died back in 1996 after 10 years of cancer, kept her illness very private, especially in the professional sphere.) And he was out there, among us, collecting his due. It made a huge impression.

I think sometimes people get sick and do no inner work, and sometimes people get sick and do lots of inner work but keep it private. He got sick and was out there with his experiences. This is something he wrote that keeps being shared, on social media and in the obits: “We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.” How funny that this revelation, really a spiritual truth you’ll hear everywhere, from the rabbis to the Dalai Lama to Jesus to the smart old lady on the block, should come from a critic. From someone whose job it is to separate the bad, the mediocre, and the good, and keep filmmakers and audiences honest. I appreciate that he chose to speak not just about the fabricated worlds of movies, but also about his own experiences of love.

Next: “I gave him a ticket to our premiere, never imagining he would actually attend.”

Joe Berlinger, documentary filmmaker

I remember being scared to death to approach him as a 30-year-old first-time filmmaker when I saw him at Sundance party in 1992 when “Brother’s Keeper” was about to have its world premiere. I overcame my fear and he turned out to be incredibly friendly and accessible and interested in what I had to say about our new film. I gave him a ticket to our premiere, never imagining he would actually attend. But he quietly took his seat and became a huge supporter of the film. Not just reviewing it for the Sun-Times, he also included it on his TV show with Gene Siskel, which was critical to our theatrical success and a huge leap of faith on his part since we were self-distributing the film after not getting a distribution deal at Sundance. 

He continued his strong support of our work throughout the “Paradise Lost: series (and beyond), passionately arguing for the West Memphis Three’s innocence instead of just limiting his comments to critiquing the filmmaking. His on-air review of the original “Paradise Lost” in 1996 is priceless for how agitated he gets decrying the miscarriage of justice and the flawed legal proceedings, demonstrating an extraordinary passion for human issues that informed all of his film criticism. His support over the years, particularly at the start of our careers with “Brother’s Keeper” and then “Paradise Lost” really helped put us on the map. Using his mainstream platform to champion independent cinema and documentaries in particular really helped usher in that golden period of documentaries being so popular at the box office that took off in the mid-nineties, for which I and my nonfiction colleagues will always be deeply grateful.

Jared Moshé, writer/director, “Dead Man’s Burden”

I never got the opportunity to talk to Roger Ebert in detail. I met him once at a film festival and if he had time I would have told him how much I loved his writing. That wasn’t always the case, though. When I was younger his writing annoyed me. I couldn’t understand why he always seemed to find the positive aspects of even the worst movies.  It wasn’t until I started to get older that I realized what I thought was a flaw was actually his greatest strength. Roger Ebert could see the best in any film; he would praise as much as he would critique. And suddenly I found his writing inspiring. His piece on John Wayne commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Duke’s death is one of my favorite pieces of film writing ever. As sad as it is to lose such a influential man, it makes me happy to know that all his writing and work will live on. I think I’ll go re-read some now.

Next: “His thoughtfulness as a film critic arose in part out of his sense of responsibility to society as a whole.”

Jenni Olson, LGBT filmmaker and historian

I have always had the greatest admiration for Roger Ebert’s socially engaged and straightforward style of film criticism. I think his thoughtfulness as a film critic arose in part out of his sense of responsibility to society as a whole. A great example of this is his 1995 review of Maria Maggenti’s wonderful teen lesbian romance, “The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls in Love.” Roger first reviewed the film within the parameters of its genre, discussing the film’s success as a love story and giving it an overall quite positive review; but he also then chose to conclude his review by addressing the film’s significance as a lesbian film: “There has been much talk about ‘family values’ in movies. Because ‘The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love’ involves lesbianism, there are some who will never be able to believe it reflects family values. But it does.” He then goes even further and calls attention to the inherent homophobia of the MPAA: “The R rating is ironic when you reflect how much healthier and more thoughtful this film is than so much mindless, action-oriented ‘family entertainment,’ and how likely it is to inspire conversation about its values.”

Just one small example of how he elevated the occupation of film criticism and was one of its finest practitioners.

Lucy Walker, documentary filmmaker

I met Ebert when he
chuffed onto stage at the Karlovy Vary film festival in 2002, kicking
his legs and rolling his arms and pretending to be a train. The audience
had been shifting around enduring a long awards ceremony that was
managing to be both boring and scary at the same time (there was some
annoying fire-jets on stage that must have burned eyebrows off in the
front row, my face was red with heat about ten rows back). He got to the
mic and spoke perfectly, intelligently and wittily. The audience —
none of whom had any idea who he was, it being an Eastern European crowd
— loved it. Why not be brilliant, memorable, lovable, unique and 100%
himself? He made it feel like everyone else had just forgotten to do
things well, or didn’t care enough to tell things as they are. But I’m
biased. He was giving me first award for my first film “Devil’s
Playground,” as he was the head of the jury. Then later on his
television show, when my film had not been qualified for the Academy
Awards but managed to be nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, he
declared that he loved “Devil’s Playground” so much that he was giving
it an “honorary Academy Award.” Later, whenever I’d run into him at
festivals and I’d remind him who I was, he’d stop me first, and remind
me how much he liked my work. Now please everyone else forgive me, but
his remains my favorite accolade of any I’ve ever received. How full of
gifts he was for us all. Thank you with all our thumbs up, Roger.

Next: “For the next hour and a half, I didn’t watch the movie or monitor the audience – I watched the back of Ebert’s head.”

Robbie Pickering, director, “Natural Selection”

Roger Ebert’s opinion was about the only one that mattered to me about movies from a very early age. So when I had my first film play South by Southwest, and I heard that Ebert was going to be one of the judges, I was overcome with a strange mix of joy and abject fear. We premiered at 8:45 am on the first Sunday of the festival, and I thought surely he wouldn’t be in the audience for such an ungodly early screening.  But sure enough, there he was with Chaz. For the next hour and a half, I didn’t watch the movie or monitor the audience – I watched the back of Ebert’s head. And one time, around the five minute mark, I saw him start to doze off. It only lasted for a second because Chaz was there to elbow him (thank God), but my body felt like it was melting. I was finished. My stupid movie had put my hero to sleep. 

After the screening and the Q&A, I came out of the theater deflated to find Roger waiting for me. He couldn’t speak and he looked frail, most likely because I can only assume traveling wasn’t easy for him, but he gave me a thumbs up and made me stand there while he took my picture on a little camera. I was so in shock that I can’t even remember the next few minutes, hanging out with him in the lobby. A few days later, Roger and the jury awarded my film six awards — including the Grand Jury Prize. And a few weeks after that, Roger invited my film, “Natural Selection,” as a last-minute addition to Ebertfest. Once again, I couldn’t stop myself from watching Roger the entire time — sitting at the back of the humongous theater in his La-Z-Boy. Thankfully, this time, he never dozed off. Not even for a second. And the thought I can’t stop from running through my head is, “Who else matters now?”

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