It was such a tremendous weekend for PATANG at Ebertfest - we sold out all 1600 seats and Prashant killed the Q&A. I got to meet so many great filmmakers, including Alrick Brown (director of Kinyarwanda), Raymond Lambert (writer / producer of Phunny Business), Jacob Wysocki (star of the film Terri) and Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon, director and star of my pick for best film of the year, Take Shelter.
But the most important person I talked with all weekend was none other than Roger Ebert, and speaking to him was coming full circle. There’s a story behind it.
Every year the University of Colorado at Boulder hosts what is called the Conference on World Affairs. One of the highlights of the conference is that every year Roger Ebert would host a 3-day viewing of a film which he considered to be exemplary. He would analyze the films shot-by-shot, and the audience was open to call “STOP!” and ask Roger a question about the film. It was a grueling but highly entertaining event, and Roger was game for any question, and never once shied away from a response. Of course once cancer robbed Roger of his voice, he was no longer able to continue the tradition.
Cut to 1997 when I was in undergrad at Colorado, studying molecular biology and anthropology with the intent of going to medical school and becoming a pediatric oncologist. Every year I had had found time to attend Roger’s symposium, and he had dissected Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction and Fargo. In my senior year I had become an officer in the Progam Council for my university, and that year I was in charge of handling Roger’s choice to dissect, which was Alex Proyas’ brilliant sci-fi epic Dark City. I worked on the logistics of the event and even worked security one day. I also got the rare opportunity to hang out with Roger after the screening, and we shared a 30-minute conversation that would change my life.
Ebert’s poetic commentary from ‘Dark City’
In Dark City, as in the clip above, Roger had pointed out a sequence which he felt demonstrated the exquisite craft and skill of the filmmaking involved. On the surface it was a simple shot - a knife falls from a table to the floor - but Roger pointed out that that simple move, which most filmmakers would do in one shot, was actually a composite of four different shots. It was a detail that mesmerized me, and really spoke to the true meaning of craft. After the screening I had some time to speak to Roger - who was and remains incredibly accessible to all - and told him that that sequence reminded me of woodworkers carving the tiniest details into their work, what on the surface would be seen as embellishments and non-functional, but when seen in the bigger picture add up to the overall impact of the piece. We started talking about craft and the films of Satyajit Ray, Kryzstof Kieslowski and the Coens. Roger was impressed with my film knowledge, and asked if I was a film student. I told him I was a molecular biology student, but that film was an important part of my identity. Roger then looked at me and patted my hand. “I can sense you have a passion for this that runs deep - you should strongly consider being a filmmaker.”
I never saw or heard from Roger again after that, which was to be expected. He’s a very busy man, and I had a life to build. But after a stint of being a geneticist and getting my MBA, when it came time to face myself in the mirror, Roger’s words always came out to the forefront. In my life, he was the very first person who believed in my abilities as a storyteller. Even before my family, my friends, or my wife. He had no other incentive to tell me that other than because he loves cinema and he loves filmmakers with all of his heart, and he gave me that endorsement.
Cut to fifteen years later and there I was, in the beautiful Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois, representing a film I was a part of and showing people the trailer for Lilith with beaming pride. And sitting at the back of the theater in a leather chair was Roger, taking it all in. Prashant and I went up to him and he gave us his blessings, and we thanked him for being such a huge supporter of Patang.
I touched his feet (a tradition in India when you wish to pay respect to your elders) and put my hand on his shoulder, and told him “you probably don’t remember me, but I was the molecular biologist from Boulder whom you told should become a filmmaker. Roger I wanted you to know that I listened to your heartfelt advice and here I am, doing what I love most, and I have you to thank for it.”
Roger put up a finger and motioned me to wait for a second. As he is unable to speak he wrote on a small pad and lifted it up to me.
“I remember you,” he wrote, “and I’m so very proud of you.”
Roger and Me.