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The usual speechifying and star-gazing that marks the opening-night gala each year at the Toronto International Film Festival took on a special poignancy Thursday night as the 38th edition rolled out its first red carpet at Roy Thomson Hall.
It wasn't who was there, even though the stars of "The Fifth Estate"—the grabbed-from-today's-headlines account of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, played with his usual smarter-than-thou hauteur by Benedict Cumberbatch—were duly in attendance.
It was who wasn't. Roger Ebert, the critic who used his influence to put the once-scruffy festival on the map for those who shared his passion for movies, could not be there after succumbing to a long illness in April at age 70.
But organizers and founders of the TIFF made sure that Roger and his infamous gladiatorial-style up-and-down thumb were there in spirit in the sprawling auditorium. Festival directors Piers Handling and Michele Maheux, who were joined onstage by fest founders Bill Marshall and Henk van der Kolk as well as other fest officials, introduced a short film that acknowledged this most loyal and steadfast friend of the rare fest that was as much for the public to enjoy as it was those who covered the film industry.
"We felt it was only fitting to pay tribute to Roger in a way he would have wanted, surrounded by friends, family and the Toronto audience, which was always close to Roger's heart," Handling said.
As the critic himself says onscreen: "My legacy if there is one will have to do with supporting films that people might not have seen—independent films, documentaries, first films by young directors and foreign films. Because those are the films that people need to hear about."
Afterwards, Chaz Ebert—described by Handling as "Roger's best friend, life partner, and beloved wife," who joined the reviewer on his treks to Toronto since 1990 right up until last year—spoke about of his appreciation for this annual event and movies in general.
After receiving a replica of the plaque placed on a seat in a theater at the festival headquarters, the Bell Lightbox, Chaz gave the crowd's a thumb's up to appreciative cheers.
"He's probably lurking around somewhere in here, because he wants to see the movie we are going to see after."
"For Roger it was art that allowed him to step into this big empathy machine so you can see what it felt like to step inside someone else's shoes. So you could understand what it's like to be a person of another race, of another age, of another nationality, of another gender. What he felt movies were so good at was giving you the visceral feel for what it's like to see humanity in another person. The thing I loved about my husband so much was that he was a humanitarian."
The she added to much amusement, "Yeah, he also wrote the book, 'Your Movie Sucks.' But also only because he loved movies so much that he wanted you to see the really good ones. "
Although Chaz was a hard act to follow, "The Fifth Estate" director Bill Condon later managed to add a humorous footnote to her remarks, acknowledging to the audience that one of his films made the cut in Your Movie Sucks.
In the car on the way to the event, Chaz shared some her favorite personal recollections of festival.
One of the most moving: The first interview Roger conducted after he lost his ability to speak. "He saw the movie 'Juno,' and he was so excited about it. He wanted to interview its young filmmaker, Jason Reitman. And he was reluctant at first to use the computer voice"—technology that translated text to speech—"and he wanted me to conduct the interview and I said, 'You do it, you do it.' And so he did. And I watched him, and I saw the joy on his face and the sort of joy and astonishment of Jason Reitman as they went back and forth. They communicated very well. And Roger realized, 'Yeah, this works.'"
A memory on a lighter note: Fest co-founder Dusty Cohl and TIFF benefactor Myrna Daniels used to hold an annual dinner at Spadina Gardens, a Chinese restaurant. "It evolved into the dirty jokes dinner. And so filmmakers would come have dinner and everyone had to bring a dirty joke. Roger and Myrna would be leading it. But everyone had to bring a dirty joke."
Tears welled up as Chaz, looking like a movie star herself, emerged from the car at the hall and faced the flashing cameras before meeting the press on the red carpet before the ceremonies. She took a break to collect herself, before asking, "What would Roger say?" The answer: "Smile. Just smile." And she did.
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