One quality of Roger Ebert’s that was widely remarked on after his death was his ability to create a community around himself that was not about himself: not acolytes or followers, but people very different from himself who nonetheless considered him a mentor, teacher, and friend. That sense of community was in powerful evidence at Ebertfest, where conversations I had with an extraordinarily diverse cross-section of festival-goers all seemed to circle back eventually to the powerful and often very concrete effect that knowing this man had had on their lives.
Grace Wang, a 30-year-old writer and filmmaker from Toronto whose first film, a lyrical 18-minute short called I Remember, opened the festival, spoke emotionally with me at the festival’s closing-night party about what Ebert’s mentorship had meant to her. Wang, like many of the Far-Flung Correspondents (a group of young writers from around the world whom Ebert handpicked to contribute to his website), originally encountered Ebert through a comment she left on his blog. The two began a voluminous correspondence, exchanging emails and haikus, and Ebert encouraged her to pursue her dream of making films despite her Chinese-born parents’ preference that she pursue the law career she had trained for. In a heartfelt speech before her film on opening night, Wang described a moment when, after a long struggle to get I Remember shot and edited, she found herself standing on the sidewalk outside a Toronto production facility with the first HD cassette copy of the movie in her hand, overwhelmed with emotion that the project had finally come to fruition. Thinking that her friend and mentor would want to know the film was finally done, she took a picture of the cassette and emailed it to him with the message “I’m having a moment.” Ebert’s response took a little longer than usual—more than a day, when he usually turned around her emails in a matter of hours. When it came, it was just five words long: “A moment for a lifetime.” It would be their final exchange; a few weeks later, he was gone.
Chuck and Eileen Kuenneth, a retired couple from Chicago, met in Ebert’s ongoing adult-education film class at the University of Chicago. Chuck, a programmer and analyst, had been attending the class every year since 1972; Eileen, a legal secretary, joined eight years later, and after eight more years of faithful attendance, they went on their first date, an appropriate one for two movie nerds: After taking Eileen out to dinner, Chuck took her back to his apartment to screen his personal 16mm copy of From Here to Eternity. (“No etchings,” Eileen interjected dryly when Chuck told me this detail.) The two were married in 1991, continued to attend Ebert’s course every year until he stopped teaching in 2005, and have come to every Ebertfest since the event’s inception in 1999. Chaz and Roger Ebert attended the Kuenneths’ wedding (that’s a picture of them all dancing the hora) and one year later, citing Chuck and Eileen’s relatively late-in-life nuptials as an inspiration, they invited the Kuenneths to theirs. “Most of our friends from the last 30, 40 years are people we met in that class,” Eileen told me as we stood in the aisles after a packed screening. “And Roger was a real romantic, so he always got a big kick out of the fact that we met through his class.”
Then there was Krishna Bala Shenoi, the youngest of the Far-Flungs, a shy 19-year-old university student and aspiring filmmaker from Bangalore, India, who had traveled with his mother and sister to the festival (leaving him so jet-lagged he found himself falling asleep in every afternoon movie). Three years ago, when Krishna was still in high school, Ebert spotted some of his short films and animation projects on YouTube and got in touch to invite him to contribute to his website. Here’s an example of some of Krishna’s recent work, a lovely hand-Rotoscoped tribute to the films of his hero Steven Spielberg that went viral enough to attract the attention of the director himself, who wrote Krishna an admiring note.
Another of my favorite encounters was with Randy Masters, a 53-year-old quality engineer for a construction-equipment company in Pekin, Ill., who, when he heard I was interviewing Ebertfest regulars, made a point of tracking me down to tell me his story. Masters is a dyed-in-the-wool Tea Party conservative who got to know Ebert after leaving a heated comment on a blog post that named the libertarian comic Ben Stein’s pro-intelligent-design documentary Expelled as the worst movie of 2008. The next day, Masters checked back to see that Ebert had turned his comment into a post of its own, adding what Masters characterized as “a very civil reply.” Masters’ conservative polemics riled up the Sun-Times critic’s generally progressive following so much that the comment thread on the Ben Stein post continued for months, eventually running to 3,000-plus comments. “I was on there every night debating scientists,” Masters told me. “I met several great people through that thread that I still am friends with.” Many readers called Masters a troll and encouraged Ebert to block him from the site, but Ebert refused, saying that he valued the challenge to his own belief system and in one post called Masters “a defender of intelligent design so articulate that when he was away for a couple of days, the Darwinians began to fret and miss him.” (On other occasions, Ebert grew annoyed at Masters’ provocations, once responding to a tasteless picture of Obama he posted with the comment, “Randy, you’re such a tool.”) Over the next five years, Masters continued to engage frequently on the blog’s lively comments board, and eventually became a regular at the festival as well. “Mainly,” he told me as the last night’s movie, a dark-tinged teen love story called The Spectacular Now, was about to begin, “I wanted to say this: Roger was my friend when he did not have to be. He’s Roger Ebert. I’m just Randy from Pekin, Illinois.”
As much as the movies, it’s these conversations I’ll remember from my first, but I hope not last, Ebertfest. Well, that and Tilda Swinton leading a conga line of audience members through the aisles of the Virginia Theatre in an 11 a.m. “dance-along,” as Roger’s wife Chaz, just over two weeks into widowhood, boogied onstage alone to Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.”