Film critic Roger Ebert didn’t cover the inaugural Toronto International Film Festival in 1976. But he came the second year and for more than 30 years after that, helping, festival director and Chief Executive Piers Handling believes, put the festival on the map as a major destination for movies and the people who love them.
Handling and previous festival directors took the stage Thursday night to pay tribute to Ebert, who died in April after a long battle with cancer. Handling presented Ebert’s wife, Chaz, with a commemorative plaque, similar to the one that now graces a seat in the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Cinema One theater.
“I do wish he were here,” Chaz Ebert said. “Before I came out I actually felt that he is here. And knowing Roger, he’s probably lurking about somewhere in here because he wants to see the movie we’re going to see after.”
That movie, festival opener “The Fifth Estate,” is directed by Bill Condon, who shared memories of a long, enjoyable dinner spent with Roger Ebert and actor Liam Neeson after Condon’s 2004 film, “Kinsey,” screened in Toronto. And, following Chaz Ebert’s mention that her husband loved movies so much that he wrote a book titled “Your Movie Sucks” that helped steer filmgoers away from bad ones, Condon ruefully noted that he had “blocked out” that particular volume.
“I had forgotten,” Condon said, shaking his head, “that I actually had a movie in ‘Your Movie Sucks.’ ”
Movies mattered to Roger Ebert. They weren’t just passive entertainment. And he loved the populist spirit of the publicly attended Toronto festival, reveling in conversations he’d have with other film enthusiasts while waiting in line.
“He felt when a movie was at its best, it really helped you to see the humanity and heart of another person,” Chaz Ebert said of her husband. “It was art that allowed you to step into this big empathy machine so that you can understand what it’s like to be a person of another race, of another age, of another nationality, of another gender. The thing I loved about my husband so much was that he was a humanitarian.”