The kind of movie that lingers on in your head, just like the best fairy tales do.
CONGRATULATIONS TO STEVE JAMES AND DAVID E. SIMPSON for the Outstanding Editing Emmy they won for "LIFE ITSELF," the wonderfully life-affirming documentary about my late husband ROGER EBERT. The award was presented at the 37th annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards at the Jazz at Lincoln Center on September 21st. And a curious synchronicity occurred as we stepped into the elevator outside of the Rose Auditorium. As Steve James held his Emmy aloft and noisily celebrated with me and the producers from CNN Films, Kartemquin Films and Amy Entelis, Zak Piper, Mark Mitten, Kat White, Josh Schollmeyer and Courtney Sexton—Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," began to play, as if Roger himself wanted to broadcast that he was indeed celebrating with us too. It sent chills down our spines and we all went silent. For that is one of Brubeck's songs that was playing as Roger was transitioning out of this life, and it was the Brubeck song featured in the documentary.
People are often surprised that there are Emmys other than the ones presented on the Primetime Emmy Awards telecast. When you arrive for the News & Documentary Emmy Awards, no one asks you, "Who are you wearing?" These are the serious Emmys honoring achievements in nonfiction filmmaking and journalistic integrity, presented by such heavyweights as Lester Holt, Dana Bash, Bill Moyers, Jane Pauley, George Stephanopoulos, Scott Pelley, Elizabeth Vargas and the master of the follow-up question, Jake Tapper. There were also several acclaimed documentarians in attendance such as Laura Poitras and Stanley Nelson, the latter of whom received a Lifetime Achievement Award in what was surely one of the evening's greatest highlights.
After earning a standing ovation, Nelson gave a deeply moving speech in which he told the audience how horrified he was at the level of discourse during the current election season. He said that it was painful for him to even watch the news, and believes that it is our failure to tell the full American story that creates a fear and longing for a past that never existed. He said he did his part by telling some of the stories about people who lived in the margins of society, but that he and we need to step up and do more in order to embrace the wonderful unstoppable future that lies ahead.
Several news and journalistic awards were won by CNN, Frontline and PBS for shedding light on equally vital stories, such as Europe's refugee crisis, ISIS in Afghanistan and the ever-divisive NRA. One of the wins that made me supremely happy was for Kirsten Kelly and Anne de Mare's documentary, "The Homestretch," which explores the lives of four homeless youths in Chicago. The Kartemquin production earned an Emmy for Outstanding Business and Economic Reporting—Long Form.
CNN Films broadcast "Life Itself" all across the country, and there is not a week that goes past when we don't receive letters at our website, RogerEbert.com, telling us what the film, and Roger meant to them. "Life Itself" is still available on Netflix. Roger was a film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times and in syndication in hundreds of newspapers for 46 years, as well as on television for over 35 years. In a sense, we all grew up listening to or reading his opinions about the movies. But what touches me even more are the comments from readers about how Roger's words about empathy and putting one's self in the shoes of a person of another race, religion, age, physical ability, economic status or sexual identity are more important today than when he first uttered them. Roger said movies can be a giant machine that generates empathy by awakening and touching places deep within us that cause us to change. Cinema at its best has the power to touch hearts and change minds.
Roger's passion for film was matched only by his passion for humanity, and I think that comes through in the documentary. Roger and his partner Gene Siskel reviewed films through several prisms, as entertainment, as a look into the lives of others whose lives were different from our own, as mood enhancers, and for Roger, as a glimpse into life itself. Steve James set out to make a different film, but as the circumstances of Roger's life changed, the film changed, and with the permission of Roger to be as transparent as possible, the film evolved into a slightly subversive journey through the universal experience. It showed us a man who was fully human, certainly not a saint, but one who cared deeply for human rights and justice. It made us look into the corners of illness and mortality, and showed how death is a part of life, and how we can face it on our own terms.
Steve James and David Simpson's editing caused it to transcend the life of one man, making it more emotionally accessible in a way that the every day person could relate to. The film helped us to identify with the vulnerabilities of life, and highlighted the importance and beauty of family and love and connection. It is a film that was almost not made. But I am so glad it was.
This Emmy award is the latest honor for "Life Itself," which made the Oscar shortlist in 2015, and was named Best Documentary by the Producer's Guild of America, and the National Board of Review. Among other awards it earned were the Founders Prize at the Traverse City Film Festival, a Jury Prize at the Documentary Edge Festival in New Zealand, the Best Documentary prize at the 5th American Film Festival in Wrocław, Poland and Best Equality of the Sexes at the Women Film Critics Circle Awards.
It also earned a number of Best Documentary accolades from film critics' groups including: the Critics' Choice award, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Florida Film Critics Circle, the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Indiana Film Journalists Association, the Online Film Critics Society, the African-American Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Online, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, the Georgia Film Critics Association, the North Carolina Film Critics Association, the North Texas Film Critics Association, the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle, the Southeastern Film Critics and the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association.
I extend heartfelt thanks and congratulations to the entire “Life Itself” team:
Director: Steve James; Producers: Zak Piper, Steve James, Garrett Basch; Executive Producers: Martin Scorsese, Steven Zaillian, Michael W. Ferro, Jr., Gordon Quinn, Justine Nagan, Kat White, Mark Mitten; Executive Producers, CNN Films: Vinnie Malhotra, Amy Entelis; Supervising Producers, CNN Films: Courtney Sexton, Lizzie Kerner and Co-Producers: Emily Hart, Josh Schollmeyer and Mark Mitten.
The 37th Annual News & Documentary Emmy® Awards honors programming distributed during the calendar year 2015. The winners were announced at the Award Presentation at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in NYC on September 21st. For the full list of winners, click here.