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Ebert acknowleged the applause of those gathered to pay tribute to him at the historic Chicago Theatre on Monday, July 18, 2005. A sidewalk medallion bearing his name was unveiled under the marquee of the theatre during the celebration. (Charles Rex Arbogast/The Associated Press)
Ebert acknowleged the applause of those gathered to pay tribute to him at the historic Chicago Theatre on Monday, July 18, 2005. A sidewalk medallion bearing his name was unveiled under the marquee of the theatre during the celebration. (Charles Rex Arbogast/The Associated Press)

Roger Ebert and me: My bizarre run-in with him at TIFF Add to ...

I was greatly saddened to learn of the passing of Roger Ebert, the first film critic ever to win a Pulitzer and a formidable influence in my childhood, having watched him review movies on his popular TV show.

I’ll never forget my rather bizarre run-in with Ebert at the 2002 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, as a horde of journalists attempted to get into an overflowing screening of Todd Haynes’ melodrama Far From Heaven, which was generating serious buzz.

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Ebert didn’t manage to get in. And that had him hopping mad. Ever outspoken, Ebert began venting to festival staff, angered that he woul d not be getting into that screening room. Exhausted from the marathon that is TIFF–dawn-to-dusk screenings, interviews, press conferences, epic sleep deprivation and too much caffeine–I had a strange moment. I turned to Ebert and, raising my voice, told him to “Go back to America.”

That proclamation was soon heard round the world (it helped that the room was full of journalists). Newsweek speculated that it was a bit of post-9/11 anti-Americanism. Others chimed in, some criticizing Ebert for his sniping at a TIFF employee, others defending his actions. Ebert defended himself in subsequent columns during the festival, saying he simply spoke firmly. He pointed out that too many industry types were getting into these advance screenings, while working journalists who were trying to cover the festival were shut out.

Every festival needs a scandal, and this soon became the one for 2002, generating dozens of articles. The irony of Ebert seeming like a bully was a rich one, given that he was a committed liberal Democrat, often championing lesser-known films made by perceived underdogs. He consistently lamented the poor representations of blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays and women on screen. TIFF’s founders spoke out, saying Ebert had done nothing wrong and dismissing Canadian film critics as a bunch of glorified hairdressers who never showed the festival enough support in its early years. (These pronouncements were followed by a frantic call from a TIFF publicist, who told me the founders “didn’t speak for the current management of TIFF.”)

I learned later on that Ebert phoned the manager of the theatre where the incident had taken place to apologize. Upon my return to the offices of the Montreal Mirror, the paper I was then writing for, I received a card signed by the employees of the theatre, thanking me for sticking up for them.

Years later, I was struck by Ebert’s bravery in his very public and harsh battle with cancer, something that would rob him of his voice and his lower jaw. When I learned of his first brush with the disease, I wrote to him to express my sympathy and best wishes.

About four years ago, I bumped into him outside a TIFF press screening. He looked down and read my press pass, recognizing the name. We locked eyes and shook hands. There were no words, but I could tell there were no hard feelings–a silent end to a brief, surreal run-in with America’s most famous film critic.

Matthew Hays is a writer based in Montreal.

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