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Palm Springs Film Fest: Chaz Ebert on Life with Roger and Ebertfest

Off-Ramp commentator R.H. Greene and the late Roger Ebert.
Off-Ramp commentator R.H. Greene and the late Roger Ebert.
Courtesy R.H. Greene

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The late film critic Roger Ebert loved film festivals so much he created one of his own--the Ebertfest, which is still held each April at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign IL. Off-Ramp contributor R. H. Greene saw this side of Ebert's personality up close when he worked with Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival in both 2000 and 2001. This week, as he covers the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Greene has been thinking about Ebert a lot.

"The thing that to me is going to stand the test of time is what Roger said about movies being a machine that generates empathy. It allows us to put ourselves in someone else's shoes for two hours. That is his legacy to me, not so much his writing about movies, but the underlying reason for his love of movies is that they helped you develop compassion for other people."

-- Chaz Ebert on her late husband, the film critic and fan, Roger Ebert

The Palm Springs International Film Festival is a bustling place, full of stars and premieres, Oscar hopefuls and first-time filmmakers. A good time, even when you're haunted by a ghost. I never go to a film festival without thinking of Roger Ebert. I worked Sundance with Roger twice--once as a web producer, and a second time as his TV cameraman. He was memorable and intellectually stimulating company.

Roger was ubiquitous at places like Sundance -- walking the streets, greeting his fans, posing for selfies long before they had a name. Festivals seemed to activate the newspaperman in Roger, and he loved the action. He filed copy, broke stories, took his own photos. You saw him everywhere.

Roger's gone now, but the robust health of the festival circuit -- it's importance as a pathway for difficult and visionary movie product -- is a big part of his legacy. Roger's widow Chaz continues to carry that torch. She was at Palm Springs this year ... as a participant not an onlooker. It's almost the end of her year-long promotional run for "Life Itself," director Steve James' moving chronicle of Roger's life and death.

Official trailer for "Life Itself"

For those who know Roger as a public intellectual, the film's intimate glimpse of his life with Chaz is a revelation. It was clearly a great romance, the kind everybody hopes for and few achieve. It's tempting to call theirs a kind of movie love. But "Life Itself" unflinchingly shows it was realer than that. Real as cancer. As real as the grave. "Life Itself" is on the shortlist for this year's documentary Oscar. Chaz admits she thinks about the prospect of a nomination.

The Eberts loved film festivals so much they created one of their own. It used to be the Overlooked Film Festival. It's Ebertfest now. And it's in its 17th year. As Chaz describes it, it was a place where Roger was very much alive.

"At Ebertfest, Roger used to introduce every single film, and after it was over, he'd go onstage, conduct the Q & A, and after watching the films all day with the filmmakers, he would take them out to Steak and Shake at the end of the evening, and we'd be out til 2 in the morning," said Chaz. "He was an only child, and he loved being surrounded by family."

Ebertfest endures. And Roger -- for now at least -- is still here too, working the circuit, if from the other side of the movie screen.