When I was a little girl growing up in Oklahoma City, I was a little
geek who read books voraciously and wrote incessantly. I told stories
to myself while walking to school to pass the time. I scribbled stories
during class, hiding a notebook inside my textbook so my teachers wouldn't
know what I was doing. And I also, thanks in large part to my grandmother
and Roger Ebert, came to love the storytelling of movies.
I spent the night at my grandmother's house frequently during my childhood, and one of the shows my grandmother and great-grandmother enjoyed watching was a little show on PBS called Sneak Previews, with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. My grandmother was a practical woman, and she liked that they looked like guys she might see at church or the grocery store, not like fancy movie stars. She liked that they talked about movies in a way she could relate to, and most of all, she liked it when Siskel and Ebert argued.
She and my great-grandmother would drink a martini or a glass of red wine or two while watching the show, and when Ebert would get the best of Siskel in an argument, my great-grandmother would hoot, "Hah! The one with the glasses really told the skinny one off that time!" Neither of them could keep straight who was Siskel and who was Ebert, but they always thought "the one with the glasses" was funny, and they only agreed with Siskel when he agreed with Ebert. They agreed with each other that Roger wore his hair too long and that he should cut it shorter or slick it back with some nice pomade. They also thought my uncle, the Catholic priest, wore his hair too long, but when they realized my uncle and Roger had the same haircut, they decided through a conversation that lasted through an entire episode of the show that the haircut was tolerable, since that seemed to be the look that was fashionable. After all, the-one-with-the-glasses had his own TV show with that haircut, so it must be okay.
I wrote from the time I could write, little stories and poems, and later longer stories and essays and such. I always wanted to be a writer, and my grandmother encouraged me in this. We'd lie in her bed late at night before she fell asleep, and she'd have me "review" whatever movie I'd seen lately, or a book I was reading. When I was a bit older, maybe 12 or so, I told her shyly that when I grew up, I'd like to write, and maybe I'd like to write about movies. I was really asking her whether she thought I wrote well enough to have a dream like that, of course, and whether it would ever be possible to do such a thing as have a job where you got to write about movies.
My family were practical people, you see, folks who valued hard work; grown-ups had bills to pay, and responsibilities, and it didn't much matter if you liked what you did to make your paycheck, so long as you earned it. Work wasn't about pleasure, it was work, and you did it because you had to, not because you enjoyed it. While I'd harbored secret dreams that maybe as a grownup, I might be able to have a job that would pay enough to be "responsible" while also being something I actually liked doing, I wasn't entirely sure this was possible for ordinary people. So it was with some trepidation that I confessed to my grandmother that I dreamed of being a writer who wrote about movies, half afraid she might say that it just wasn't a practical idea, and that I should follow the path that she, my mother and my aunt had taken of getting a nice, stable secretarial job for the State.
Instead, she told me, "Well, baby, I guess if that Siskel and Ebert can do it, you can do it, too."
But I didn't, for a long time. Life got in the way and motherhood came along with its inherent responsibilities to be dealt with. I majored in journalism, but switched to education with just six hours left to complete in my journalism studies because teaching was a more practical field. Later, I switched to the tech industry where the money was good, even if the work wasn't always fulfilling. I still wrote, but my writing got shoved into the nooks and crannies of a life that seemed to get busier and busier, and while a little flicker of the dream to write still burned, for a while it was eclipsed by more practical matters.
Then I took some time off from working to stay home with my kids -- it's hard to think about working when you've got four kids aged six and under -- and somewhere around the third year of that, I started to think about what might be around the next bend. I was at a crossroads in my life, one of those moments when the choice you make will define things for a long time to come. A return to tech beckoned on one side, with all its allure of a big salary, job security, and benefits. On the other side, the possibility of pursuing a long-dormant dream stood by, watching and waiting to see which path I'd choose.
Then I heard that a blog called Cinematical was looking to hire a writer, and suddenly the childhood dream seemed a possibility. And I thought about Roger Ebert, and how he probably didn't look at his choice of career with regret for not following his dream, and I decided I didn't want that regret either. So I took a deep breath and took the path of insecurity and uncertainty, to see where it would take me. And perhaps a year or so after I started writing about film, when I was wondering whether I'd made the right choice or if I should get back into tech, it was Roger Ebert who -- without him knowing the impact he had -- played a role in keeping me on my path.
At Sundance 2006, I saw Roger around the fest (you always knew when he was coming by the heads turning and the sudden buzzing of whispered voices: "Look! It's Ebert!"). Of course, I was too shy to approach him. I'd seen Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart at Sundance and loved it, and when I saw Roger's positive review in his closing write-up of Sundance, I worked up the courage to email him to tell him how much I enjoyed his review and how much I loved the film myself. I read Roger's reviews regularly, of course, but I'd never commented or emailed, and it certainly never occurred to me that he might know who I was. When I got a reply, I expected an automated response message of the "Thank you for emailing Roger Ebert. Mr. Ebert reads all his mail, but cannot personally respond to every one ..." type. So when I opened that email and found a lovely personal response, I was surprised, but then I got to bottom of the email and saw the three words he'd written there.
"Love your work."
Love my ... work? Roger Ebert, childhood television companion of so many nights at my grandmother's house, the man who taught me to love movies, loved my work?
Well, hell, I sure couldn't quit after that.
Roger invited me that year to his Overlooked Film Festival, but I wasn't able to attend due to the impending birth of my grandson the same weekend. I did go the next year and ever since, and hopefully I'll be there every year for as long as the festival runs. And in between, even through his illness and long rehabilitation, he's offered me kind words of encouragement, or gentle ribbing, or funny quips along the way. He's been a mentor not only for my writing, but about how to live your life with dignity and courage, and he and his lovely wife Chaz have become friends I treasure. And he's been responsible, in more ways than he knows, for me having an utterly non-practical career that I love.
Ebertfest isn't just a film festival, it's a family -- a family of filmmakers, film critics and film lovers who all come together to celebrate the movies in a unique communion of love for cinema, infused in its very soul by the warmth and generosity of Roger Ebert. The only thing that comes close to Ebertfest is Telluride, but Ebertfest is smaller, more intimate, and somehow more personal to the people fortunate enough to experience it. At other festivals, film journalists interview filmmakers -- under the gun of a 10 or 15 minute time slot, handlers hovering, and talent who've been sitting in a room answering variations of the same questions all day long. At Ebertfest, film journalists, filmmakers and festival passholders mix and mingle freely, and the conversations flow like fine wine.
At Ebertfest, all the guests are housed in the same place, the Illni Union hotel. We meet in the morning grabbing a coffee in the Student Union, listen to each other's panels, watch films together in the beautiful Virgina Theater, chat in between films over more coffee on the back patio of the nearby coffeeshop, and converse over lovely meals and wine over dinner in the VIP Green Room.
We talk about the films, of course, but we also talk about our lives and share personal stories; while I might learn more about the production specifics of a given film in a regular fest interview, at Ebertfest I might hear a story about a director's childhood, or what they did on their last vacation, or what book they've been reading. It's like going off to a weekend camp for film geeks, where everyone bonds over metaphorical marshmallows around the campfire, and by the end of the weekend, everyone's hugging and sad that it's over, and promises to keep in touch until next year. And most of the time, we do.
Friendships form at Ebertfest, and it's not just the love of the movies that does it, it's the magical, almost spiritual atmosphere of the fest, and the deliberate way in which Roger structured it to bring filmmakers and film journalists together in this unique way that makes it different from every other fest. It's about the love of movies, but it's also about the community that forms there for a few days every April. I travel back to Urbana each year not hoping to meet a particular filmmaker, but knowing that I will have the opportunity to sit around those round tables over dinner with the most extraordinary combination of film lovers you could ever hope to share a meal with. And at some point during the meal, Roger will scoot into an empty chair at our table and join the conversation with his notebook in hand, always with a witty remark at the ready. Ebertfest is nirvana, and it's because of Roger that it is what it is.
I've never told Roger the story of how he touched my life for so long. Perhaps I was saving it for some future day when I'd finally complete the brilliant screenplay I'm working on, make the film I dream of making in the way in which I dream of making it, and hear from Roger that he enjoyed my film so much he wants to program it in his own film festival. And then I'd introduce the film by telling this story, and it would be a lovely thing. But that day may or may not ever come, so I decided to tell this story here, after a joyous weekend of fest dispatches written at 2AM or so after long days and nights of movie-watching and chatting and socializing.
I'll be back at Ebertfest next year, for the love of movies, but more for the love of the festival itself, and the love Roger shares with his hometown every April. Maybe we'll see you there, too.
by Kim Voynar