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Life Itself: an inspiring trip to the movies

Life Itself is a deeply moving documentary based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of his life as a famous film critic in Chicago, from the sixties till his recent death. Produced by Garrett Basch, and directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), the film takes us through the voice-overs of Roger’s memoirs, old interviews, and clips from Cannes, and from his famous TV show with Gene Siskel, At the Movies. The documentary explores the competitive sibling-like relationship with Siskel, their on screen duels over films, as the two egos tossed coins over decisions, rather than give up control. Ebert was a populist who wanted people to understand the movies and gave life to films of different points of view.

The director interviews friends, colleagues and film directors, such as Scorcese and Herzog, whose careers Ebert made, along with many others who were moved by his support. Faithful to the Chicago Tribune, even when the world feted him, he had many long serving colleagues over the decades. “He’s nice, but he’s not that nice”, says one, as the film is candid when facing his thirty years of alcohol abuse and womanizing. When at 50 he meets his wife Chaz, an inspiration and star of the documentary, it’s a life changing connection he acknowledges for saving his life. The film follows him through the tough final months of his life, as wheelchair bound he faces surgeries and treatments for thyroid cancer, with the powerhouse Chaz at his side. Though Ebert can no longer eat or speak, other than through his computer, he will not be defeated. He writes his blogs, which are his voice, till the last moment, when he posts his final greeting, thanks his readers, and says, ‘I’ll see you at the movies’.

Life Itself documents the joy of a life filled to the full, a man in love with film, a writer of film scripts and books, and a contributor to world conferences, with his renowned ‘cinema interruptus’, which were frame by frame film critiques that could last for hours. He called cinema ‘a machine for generating empathy’, which is a fitting concept for this documentary, already set to be an Oscar contender. This would be a wonderfully fitting end for Ebert, a Pulitzer prize winner, who brought film criticism to the masses.

Jacqueline Palmer, an integrative psychotherapist, is in private practice in North London and runs “A Return to Intimacy” workshops. With an MA in Film from the BFI, she has practiced photography and published poems and short stories on her path to becoming a psychotherapist.