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Roger Ebert Documentary 'Life Itself' Picked for Cannes Film Festival

By Mark Konkol | April 22, 2014 6:21pm
 Roger Ebert's press pass from the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.
Roger Ebert's press pass from the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.
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Kartemquin Films

Roger Ebert always loved Festival de Cannes, except for the jet lag.

The late movie critic even turned years of journal entries about his experiences at the glamorous, star-studded French film festival into a book, "Two Weeks in the Midday Sun," that's all about movies he watched there, his run-ins with celebrities and misadventures navigating a whirlwind of gossip, egos and the uber rich at Cannes' 40th anniversary in 1987.

And this year, Cannes will celebrate Ebert's legacy — he attended about 35 of the festivals — by showing filmmaker Steve James' documentary "Life Itself," which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic's memoir of the same name.

It's fitting that Ebert's life story will get screen time at the world's fanciest film fest to an audience of Hollywood elite as one last tribute to the critic whose opinion — told bluntly by the direction his thumb pointed — mattered so much.

Chaz Ebert wrote on her blog of plans to honor her husband's memory by traveling to Cannes and staying at "The Roger Ebert Suite" at the Hotel Splendid.

"And then I will go to the American Pavilion and partake of seminars in the Roger Ebert Conference Room on the beach," she wrote. "I will miss his joy at the festival and how he thrilled at each new discovery."

The addition of "Life Itself" to the festival lineup also recognizes the work of two other Chicago film institutions — Steve James of "Hoop Dreams" fame, of course, and his non-profit production partner, Kartemquin Films, which has been making documentaries in Chicago since 1966.

 Chicago filmmaker Steve James
Chicago filmmaker Steve James
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Kartemquin Films

The Ebert tribute will be the first film showcased at Cannes for both of them. The festival runs from May 14 to May 25.

"You know, one of the best images we have used to market the film is Roger's Cannes press pass from 1980, this iconic vintage image of him. So, it's really going full circle," Kartemquin executive director Justine Nagan said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and a first for Kartemquin. We're so happy for Steve and Chaz and the film to have it shown at such a wonderful venue."

When I saw the World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, I wept a little. "Life Itself" really is a powerfully emotional portrait of a man who loved the movies, our city, and Chaz with all his heart and probably not in that order.

But since then, the version of the film has already changed, a little.

"As soon as we got back from Sundance, Steve wanted to edit the film. So, the version that will play at Cannes includes four extra minutes and it's footage about Roger at Cannes," Kartemquin spokesman Tim Horsburgh said. "Steve and editor David Simpson loved that footage so much they have said this will be the permanent, definitive version of Life Itself."

James said the new addition to the movie was inspired by Ebert's stories written at the festival over the years.

"He loved Cannes and Cannes loved him," James said in a statement. "We were so inspired ... that we've created a new section in the film devoted to his adventures there. ... Roger was a student of great cinema and of the dreams and spectacle that for him defined Cannes. We can't wait to share his story and our film with everyone there."

And, personally, I can't wait for that first Chicago screening. "Life Itself" is a film that deserves a hometown crowd.