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by Katherine Delby
February 10th, 2014

What a way to begin my internship with Rooftop Films: by falling in love. Steve James’ documentary tribute to the late and great American film critic Roger Ebert,Life Itself was given a special sneak preview this past Monday, February 3rd thanks to the wonderful Paley Center for Media and the ever fanciful Piper-Heidsieck champagne. Not only that, but we were lucky enough to hold a questionnaire with Steve James, Chaz Ebert, Ramin Bahrani, and A.O. Scott themselves.

Honored to be a part of this event, I and a fellow intern teamed up with the representatives of Piper-Heidsieck to make the castle of the Paley Center for Media the perfect spot to feature Life Itself, a film that we all knew deserved royal treatment for film critic royalty, Roger Ebert. When we were finally settled in, our very own Dan Nuxoll introduced the film and presented our special guests to the audience, Steve James, who beat the snowstorm and arrived in the nick of time to cheerful applause.

How does one begin a documentary of a legendary Hollywood film critic when we lost him to such a painful disease? Steve James felt it best to begin with what it was, for what it was: a elderly man propped up in a hospital bed suffering the rough conditions of thyroid cancer, which had taken over half of his jaw. But to our delight we discovered that underneath that pain the man was actually smiling: excited that Steve was there for him and using his synthesized voice generator to crack jokes.

Accompanied by a snappy jazz tune, the film then transitions into the impressive and hearty life of Roger Ebert. With a collage of photos, interviews with Martin ScorseseWerner Herzog, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani, Stephen Stanton, Ava DuVernay, A.O. ScottMarlene Iglitzen, and Chaz Ebert, and footage from his famous show Siskel and Ebert, James had assembled what felt like a symphony of memoirs that elegantly painted Ebert’s accomplishments, lifestyle, and character. We knew what the documentary was leading up to: what we had glimpsed at the beginning of the film. But by the time we got there, we didn’t care, because what took his life wasn’t what mattered. It was the extraordinary writing that kick-started the film review column of the Chicago Sun-times that mattered. It was the knack for spotting great films that jump-started the careers of hundreds of filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Ramin Bahrami, and Ava DuVernay, Steve James himself, and others all over the world that mattered. Though most of all, it was the unconditional, irrevocable, compassionate, tenderhearted, and never-ending love between Roger and his wife Chaz that drove home with the audience that night, that mattered.

Which brings me to the beginning of this post; what a way to begin my first internship: by falling in love. As we filed out of the theater, I had one objective on my mind. I needed to shake the hands of every filmmaker who participated in the making of Life Itself, and congratulate them on performing one of the hardest things to do in the documentary world: to vividly capture a life, and honor it through storytelling. So, I greeted Steve James with a firm hand shake and thanked him for that experience, and for presenting “a life itself” to us, to which he returned with a thank you and a look of  warm reverence in his eye. I greeted Chaz and told her, “the way [she] loved Roger inspires me to love the world just the same,” to which she took my hand in hers, looked me in the eye, and said “stay golden, ponyboy.” Just kidding. But I did say that to her, and she did take my hand and thanked me for my kind words.

The event was an admirable success, and ended with a glass of champagne for our guests courtesy of Piper-Heidsieck, as well as tasty desserts that I snuck into a napkin and to take home. Caught up in that moment, I felt for the first time apart of the film industry that I had dreamed of: a place where good storytelling changes your life. I wondered if out others guests felt that way. In walking out of the castle onto a snowy Fifty-Second street, I had one question on my mind: what would Roger have thought about this film?

Life Itself screened at the Paley Center for Media, presented by Rooftop Films and Piper-Heidsieck Champagne. The film is being distributed by Magnolia Pictures for a likely summer release.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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