Editor's Note: In February, the University of Illinois honored Roger Ebert posthumously with the Illinois Prize. At the event, Roger was remembered by, among others, Milos Stehlik, the director of Chicago's Facets Multi-media, a cinematheque and video rental service that led the way in renting international and art cinema by mail.
I know Roger Ebert for more than 40 years. I use the present tense consciously, because for me, his words still breathe, and through them, so does he. Despite the fact that television is what gave Roger a national platform and an influence far beyond what was possible through newspapers, I think his heart always belonged to print. Walking to deliver him press kits or screeners, past the presses on the ground floor of the old Sun-Times building was a powerful symbol that words needed paper and ink to spread, to take flight, to penetrate lives. For me, Roger belongs to a generation of journalists for whom journalism was not just a profession, but a culture and a way of life. This goes beyond hanging out at O’Rourke’s. The most sacrosanct—and non-negotiable—sentence I heard him speak was "I have to write." Writing was life itself. When Roger moved to television and then online—it was still words which had the magic to engage minds and make those minds see.
What would Roger Ebert have been if he had not been given the job of film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times and remained a sports writer or written something else? Fortunately for us in the film world, we will never know.
While words ran in Roger’s blood, film was in his heart. He contradicted the conventional stereotype of a journalist or critic as a dispassionate and distanced investigator and communicator of facts. Roger knew that film was something messy and intangible, which could not be easily objectified or quantified. Film is about love and fear, about dreams and failure, about an individual’s potential to alter his or her destiny. Film is about individuals trying to find the strength to reassert their goodness, to save other lives and to be saved in turn. Roger knew that film could only be approached with passion.
Roger engaged that passion to communicate this uncertainty of our human existence. He fashioned a different kind of film criticism. His writing would communicate constructs of a filmmaker's imagination. Roger’s writing would be the glue between the souls of the characters on the screen and our souls. Roger would be the writer, but he would also be the shaman, channeling the mysteries of film, aligning our spirits to those of the characters on the screen. He would show us how film can help us understand, and become whole. His was an engaged journalism: a journalism in which words have the power to change things.
Through Roger’s writing, we could feel the urgency of what the filmmaker was trying to say. The great lesson which Roger Ebert taught: film was not about drama or character, it was about us, the audience. It is about helping us be, and be better.
It is what made him unique and irreplaceable. You can't learn this in journalism school. You have to BE it. For Roger, this pact which I think he made with himself gave him the permission to be something more than a journalist: to be a champion. The films and filmmakers who owe the success of their films and their careers to Roger is long: Greg Nava and Anna Thomas and "El Norte," Werner Herzog and "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," Errol Morris and "Gates of Heaven" - just three examples from my personal experience.
Roger's message for these films and for scores of others was at once uniform and clear, "This film HAS TO EXIST."
Inherent in this evangelism was a shared belief: film is the most important art and it has the power to change the universe. I never saw Roger happier than when he discovered a film he thought was great.
In this sense, Roger was a part of all of us He belonged to our community of filmmakers and film lovers. That community is a global community, stretching from Hollywood to Mumbai, Munich to Tehran. I remember Roger's enthusiastic embrace of the film, MOOLADE, by the great Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene - a film intended to empower African women to band together and resist genital mutilation, or Iranian filmmaker Tahmineh Milani's feature TWO WOMEN - the story of two school friends forced to choose a life of oppression because they are women living in a rigid society. It’s paradoxical that Roger was ALL Illinois – a proud Chicagoan but even more proud of being a native son of Champaign-Urbana.
These were not films backed by large studio campaigns or coming with a lot of buzz. The films needed help to be recognized and appreciated. And Roger Ebert, film critic, led the charge.
For me, the great gift that he left us was not only his personal portrait of courage, but his faith that the spreading of the love of film through journalism would continue through an investment in the next generation of talented young critics – rogerbert.com
These young journalists, too, can shout out that it is film which has the power to unite us, to make us understand people other than ourselves, to open our hearts
Thank you, Roger Ebert: film has never had a better friend.