What occurred in the Pine Lounge at 9am on Friday morning of the 16th Annual Ebertfest may technically be considered a "panel," but it was so much more than that. It was a euphoric reunion, a soulful reflection, an achingly heartfelt celebration and a rousing call to action. Ten people were seated at a table, one man towered above them at the podium, and several rows of spectators shared in every laugh and tear elicited during the marvelous array of stories shared about the late Roger Ebert. Each tale provided a distinctive and vivid glimpse of the legendary critic, yet the connecting thread turned out to be the writer’s tremendous generosity and how it led him to assemble such a diverse group of extraordinary talent.
Indeed, the panelists would have been best described as Roger Ebert’s personally curated United Nations. Moderator Omer Mozaffar introduced himself as one of the Far Flung Correspondents who come “from all over the world, including myself, who is from Chicago.” Mozaffar’s background as an Islamic scholar enabled him to serve as Ebert’s “man from Pakistan,” while other Far Flungers flew into Urbana-Champaign from various places around the world. Not a single correspondent lacked a story about the meaningful role Roger played in their life. Egyptian critic Wael Khairy remembered how the volatile revolution in his country caused the Internet to become inaccessible for a number of days, and when it finally returned, his inbox was jammed with notes from Roger simply asking, “Are you okay?” Indian writer and filmmaker Krishna Shenoi recalled how Roger filled the shoes left by his late father, encouraging him to follow his own path regardless of societal expectations. Michael Mirasol, the writer Roger dubbed as his “favorite Filipino film critic,” was especially emotional as he discussed how Roger’s strength in the face of a cancer diagnosis became all the more inspirational once the disease entered the lives of his own family members. “Illness reduces everything to the immediate situation,” Mirasol said. “All we can do is let our loved ones know how much they mean to us.”
There obviously was no ambiguity regarding how the writing staff of RogerEbert.com felt about their beloved boss. New York-based critic Simon Abrams deemed his hire a “real ego boost,” and his sentiments were echoed in the words of his colleague, New Jersey native Odie Henderson, who likened Roger supporting his writing to “having Jesus as a character witness.” Both he and Roger’s mothers were opposed to their sons seeking a career in writing, and could relate to each others’ experiences with parental disapproval. Sam Fragoso, a native Chicagoan currently living in California, said that Roger discovered him when he was a junior in high school and was ordered by the critic never to reveal his age online. Chicago cinephile Peter Sobczynski became a lifelong fan of Roger’s after he wrote the critic a letter at the mere age of seven and received a thoughtful response. Many years later, Sobczynski found himself at Ebertfest, seated in the audience prior to the screening of an indie flick he had never seen, and watched helplessly as Roger announced, “The director was going to do a Q&A but got sick, so instead…where is he?…ah yes, Peter will come up afterward and talk about the film. And yes, this is the first time he’s heard this too.” Talk about an ego boost.
Jana Monji, a contributor based in Los Angeles, admitted that she was initially terrified to write for Roger, worrying if he would be accepting of her voice. Yet like her peers, she discovered that what Roger ultimately wanted from his employees was for them to write as themselves, embracing their identity rather than emulating someone else’s. With several decades of experience writing for USA Today, Susan Wloszczyna had known Roger for quite some time before she started writing for the site, and reminded the younger folk that it’s easy to forget the irascible side of their revered friend that was more apparent earlier in his career. “We’re not trying to make him a saint,” several panelists reassured the crowd, before Chaz piped in and said, “That’s okay if you do.” After attending a horrendous press screening with him and Chaz in 2011, Wloszczyna observed a “magical moment” in which Roger managed to convey his delight merely by tapping on the car window. Wloszczyna followed his gaze and spotted the object of his fascination: a Muslim woman clothed from head to toe regarding the exposed underpants of a towering Marilyn Monroe statue frozen in her iconic pose from “The Seven Year Itch.”
Watching these people interact, regarding one another not as adversaries but as family members, while exuding a shared sense of overwhelming gratitude, was profoundly moving, to say the least. Matt Zoller Seitz, Editor-In-Chief of RogerEbert.com, said there was a good reason for why his writers still refer to their leader in the present tense, referencing the very last piece Roger ever wrote, “A Leave of Presence,” in which he told his fans that he wasn’t going anywhere. “Roger is an idea and it’s still here,” Seitz said. “We have to carry that idea forward.” When members of the audience were invited to share stories of their own, an astonishing range of people materialized before the mic, from teenage fans to old AA acquaintances. Their tales of ongoing correspondences and cherished memories with Roger left the panel in awe. “Where did he find the time?” Fragoso wondered aloud. Perhaps it’s all simply a testament to Roger’s uncanny ability to use his time wisely…and, yes, generously.