Our resident film buff Wael Khairy was lucky enough to have known and worked with legendary film critic Roger Ebert for years. Following his recent passing, and in a CairoScene exclusive, Wael opens up about the films and friendship they shared...
Four years ago, Roger read my in-depth analysis of Citizen Kane and wrote: “Wael, You are a critic of the first rank. Your essay on Kane brings fresh eye to it.” Shortly after, I received an email from him titled “A Proposal from Roger”. In it, he expressed his desire to recruit “gifted critics and writers from around the world” to post their reviews on an untitled section in his website (which would eventually develop into the “Far Flung Correspondents” section). Roger felt an instant connection with a handful of writers and it was an honour to have been selected from amongst the thousands who wrote to him. “I'd love to have you in. I feel like I know you. My site is now pulling in 100 million hits a year. People will talk.” My life changed forever.
I read his reviews on a regular basis since I was nothing but kid obsessed with Jaws. The first time I saw that film triggered a movie-watching frenzy. I was looking for a film that would measure up to the Spielberg classic. Being a kid with no knowledge of film whatsoever, I watched right about anything. My collection of VHS tapes grew into the hundreds. Most of the films weren’t very good ones. I needed someone to guide me to the right movies and that’s when I was first introduced to Roger Ebert. I learned that he was the most read, awarded and recognised film critic in the world.
Even though, I did not know him at the time, I admired him greatly. How could I not? He introduced me to Hitchcock, Fellini, Welles, Scorsese, Kubrick, Malick and dozens of other legendary filmmakers. Reading his reviews eventually came hand-in-hand with watching movies. I would read his reviews before and after watching films. Sometimes, I disagreed with his opinions, but most of the time I found mutual passion towards movies. When I did disagree, I desperately wanted to elaborate my point of view, but didn’t have the knowledge or expertise to do so. So, I studied film at the American University in Cairo and completed my minor degree at UCLA. I grew obsessed with movies. I read books about film history, film theory and analytical pieces and essays by Roger Ebert. My DVD collection grew large in numbers; thanks to Roger, this collection was made up of mostly great films. Eventually, I felt comfortable about writing on film and started writing for a number of local publications. My big break came when Roger reached out for me. I couldn’t believe my eyes; working for the most legendary film critic of all time; 100 million views a year!
I’ve been writing reviews for him ever since. Each time I wrote a review, I wanted it to be perfect. You see, Roger always read my reviews and would send his insightful thoughts afterwards. My reviews grew more and more intellectual in nature and I found myself enjoying writing in-depth analysis more than short reviews. I have since written for books and publications in New York, London, and Stockholm. I'm no longer at the receiver’s end. He gave me a career.
When it comes to mass communication, the flow of information has long been travelling from the West to East. It was always a one-way flow of information. But then the internet came along and gave infinite possibilities to the direction of information, making a borderless world. What Roger did with his Far Flung feature was genius, because we (foreign correspondents) were no longer just absorbing information. It gave us in the East an opportunity to reverse the flow and push our thoughts and our culture to every corner of the world. I think Roger’s film website is the first of its kind; the first website to offer a global perspective on films. In other words, Roger Ebert decentralised film criticism and opened it up to the world.
In 2010, after expressing interest in visiting Chicago, I received this email from Roger:
Wael, if you’re thinking of coming this way, can you come to Ebertfest, April 21-25?
We will of course give you a VIP pass, your meals in the private Green Room with the visiting actors and directors, your room at the Illini Union (student center in the middle of the University of Illinois campus), a minder to help you get around, and an invite to the closing night private party. Also, Chaz and I want to have a meet & greet for the visiting regulars from my blog, and such correspondents as Ali Arikan and Grace Wang who are coming. We will put you on a panel (‘Film Lovers in the Age of the Internet”), and try to arrange a meeting with the Egyptian Students’ Assn. on campus, if you want.
Looks like we’re showing “Apocalypse Now” in a new restored version on the big screen (see theater below).
It is a long way to fly just for Ebertfest, but you pass through Chicago and can linger. It’s an hour’s flight down to Champaign-Urbana. Also, of course, you fly over New York, are an hour from Toronto, and can make it sort of a tour.
Among the other films we’ll show (still not announced) is “Julia,” with Tilda Swinton.
Late April is spring in Chicago although there are chilly days, but not “cold” ones. I think it is our most beautiful city.
You can’t imagine the state I was in when he sent me this. An instant mood-lifter if there ever was one. Roger Ebert, the critic I most looked up to; Roger Ebert, the guy whose film writing made me appreciate the medium as an art form; Roger Ebert, the reason I chose to become a film critic in the first place was asking me; a film critic all the way from Egypt to attend his film festival and be part of a panel discussion. I told everyone.
Meanwhile, Roger was writing some of his best work. Blog entry after blog entry, we got an insight into the man not the film critic. I already knew Roger was a film critic among film critics but through our virtual friendship, I discovered a human among humans. I was more eager to meet the man than the critic. He turned out to be the most generous person I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.
He’s the one who drove me to Twitter and to resurrect my blog and played the role of a matchmaker, matching my blog with my target audience: film lovers. Roger guided me through a doorway of global film criticism. I have thanked him so many times. He probably got tired of my gratitude but I didn’t care. More than anything I wanted to shake his hand. I played this handshake a thousand times in my head. It became surreal.
I often found myself thinking, “Holy shit, Roger Ebert digs my blog and wants me to attend his film festival.” He became the subject of my discussions everywhere I went. My grandfather would ask me to read his articles to him, my friends showered me with questions about the film festival, and the regulars in cafes who only had an elsalam 3alaykum-relationship with me would eavesdrop while smoking their shisha and as soon as they heard the name Roger Ebert, they’d turn to me and ask questions. I must’ve told the story of how we first met on his blog a thousand times, or how friendly he is with film lovers, and of how much he cares about his fans.
My brothers would call me all the time and his Roger’s tweets were often the subject of our conversations. His reviews kept inspiring me to work harder, write more, learn more. By the end of March 2010, everyone I saw, everyone I knew, every single person in my family knew about my going to Ebertfest.
The memory of meeting him still lingers as vibrant as ever in my head. I was invited to his home and mingled with Academy Award winning actors, directors and screenwriters. Roger was still getting dressed upstairs. He walked down and as soon as he saw me, I found myself in his arms. He hugged me and showed me two articles in that day’s newspaper centering on my arrival to Ebertfest. I found out that he updated the audience at Ebertfest with my status: “Wael just arrived to Chicago…Wael from Egypt will make it!” When I got there, overcoming the eruption of a volcano that interrupted international flights, I was greeted by everyone. “Whenever you sent me updates about your journey here, I announced them like news bulletins,” Roger wrote on his notepad.
Cancer took away his ability to talk, but by God, it didn’t take away his ability to communicate. On the web, Roger was more active than ever before. He was titled Person of the Year at the Webby Awards for his online journalism skills that reached new heights when he lost his speech because he certainly did not lose his voice.
The award was one of many. Roger was the first film critic ever to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for film criticism. He was named by Forbes as the most powerful pundit in America and even received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Roger holds the world record of most film reviews written by a single person. His achievements are endless. The way he handled his illness was inspirational beyond words.
He didn’t lose his ability to watch movies, write about them or even his sense of humour. They all evolved into something bigger. I remember the last screening at Ebertfest was the heartbreaking documentary Song Sung Blue about Thunder & Lightning and their ups and downs. I couldn’t help but think of how emotionally similar the couple’s journey was to that of Roger and Chaz. It was a fitting end to greatest two days of my life.
Thunder performed afterwards and the theatre soon broke into a concert with audiences up on their feet dancing to her tunes. I couldn’t help but smile as Roger danced along. Everyone was so happy and I couldn’t wipe that smile off my face. Roger is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. He waved and pointed his hands with perfect timing, causing waves of laughter. I doubt he had that physical humor before his operation. It’s amazing how well he handled his rough journey. At one point I remember spotting Roger sitting on his chair alone with no one around, so I jumped at the chance and sat next to him. We talked about my grandfather, my jetlag and the festival. I told him how I’d go through everything all over again just to meet him, Chaz and the far-flung gang. He also signed the festival programme for me: “To Wael, My Friend.” I appreciated the autograph, but it’s the “My Friend” part that has me gazing at the cover every hour. I later purchased 6 of his books. Someone asked me, “Aren’t you going to get him to sign them for you?” I didn’t want him to sign. I didn’t want to feel like a fan (which I am) but a friend (which he is).
Attending Ebertfest became an annual thing. I attended the panel discussion last year overexcited and overwhelmed. I mingled with the experts in the field. I formed connections, but most importantly I became closer to the Muhammad Ali of film criticism. We exchanged emails on a daily basis, discussed family, life, philosophy and film.
I no longer became a guy working for him, but a close friend. Visiting Roger no longer felt like a work meeting but a visit to a cool uncle, living abroad. He invited my brother and me to his home in November and gave us a house tour. I saw pictures of his childhood, his own little cinema inside his house and his huge DVD collection. He lent me movies and we discussed them after my viewings. Roger made sure I attended private screenings with the best critics in the world. I remember seeing the Best Picture winning The Artist a month before the general public.
“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”_ Roger Ebert
Roger tried and succeeded beyond belief. He didn’t just make me a little happier; he gave me the happiest moments of my life. He really cared about everyone around him. He truly did.
During the revolution in Egypt, the internet was cut off for a few days. I remember when it went back up, I checked my email and found at least five emails of concern from Roger. “Are you ok?... Stay Strong… The whole world is watching you… Please reply, I’m worried.” He then asked me to report from Egypt on his website and I temporarily wrote live articles on the happenings in Egypt. He posted them on his website for the whole world to see. Roger Ebert helped me report about the revolution to the whole globe. Roger was truly a citizen of the world.
Just before his departure, Roger sent me an email about his leave of absence and how he won’t be able to write anymore. He told me that a number of writers will continue to write on his new website in his absence and that he felt like he left film criticism in good hands. I’m more encouraged now than ever to continue writing for his website as a foreign correspondent. Roger went through hell, and never gave up on writing. His whole life revolved around movies and those who love movies. In fact, he wrote film reviews until the very end. His last review is on Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. It will get published on his website soon. I am told he wrote a very positive review. It’s nice knowing the last movie Roger saw was a great one by one of his all-time favourite directors.
Deep down inside, I know he knew of his passing. I learned from his wife that he died smiling, without any pain. Knowing this fills me with great comfort. The first thing I ever wrote to Roger was “I’ve been reading your reviews all my life.” My last words to him were coincidentally identical to my first interaction with my friend, teacher and mentor. I consider myself extremely lucky to have known the man behind the critic. Not everyone gets a chance to say goodbye to a loved one, and for that I am eternally grateful. My last email feels like a perfect ending to a feel good movie that lasted four wonderful years.