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“Life Itself”

I saw a great film yesterday, here at the KERRY FILM FESTIVAL 2014 in Tralee, County Kerry. I do not say this as some overused slang, as in Hey, that’s great, man! and so on. I mean it as Twelve Angry Men is a great film, or Apocalypse Now! or Bondachuk’s War & Peace is a great film. This was a truly great film, moving, universal yet entirely unique and personal to its subject, and ranging across the whole horizon of human experience, when it comes right down to the heart of what it means to be here. To be part of the human race. It was a film about a very open, very honest, very public man.

Life Itself is a documentary, in the first place, about a famous and for a considerable time highly influential film critic in America, the Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, who together with Gene Siskel, another well respected but younger film critic with the Chicago Tribune, appeared for several years in a variety of At The Movies-style TV shows arguing heatedly about current releases. It was a relationship excellently described by one of the interviewees in the film as “like Siamese Twins, joined at the arsehole.”


But this was no simple bio pic of a distinguished man’s life, though that was all covered. It was the story first of a man dying from cancer, whose ravages had wrought terrible harm to him. I sincerely hope you see the movie so I won’t describe anything, but tell you that this man Roger Ebert comes through extraordinary circumstances to be a charming, witty, smiling companion to the people around him.

In the film this is first the director/cameraman Steve James – the documentary throughout is buoyed up by the direct and immediate communication between the camera and its subject, between Steve and Roger – and Roger’s wife Charlie “Chaz” Hammelsmith, a trial attorney and the most loving and supportive wife any man could hope to have. In a blog entitled Roger loves Chaz he wrote: “She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading.”

So in last place, the film is a love story. They met when Roger was 50 and it was a marriage of true companionship, you could see that.

The editing was flawless, and, on Roger’s instructions, the film is unafraid of the potentially horrifying images that illustrate the cancer. But what you come away with is a memory of a smiling, loving, clever, funny man.

I attended the showing at the Siamsa Tire with the also smiling, loving, clever, funny man Maurice Galway, who is the Director of another fine festival down here in Kerry, the Dingle Film Festival which takes place in March of every year. I am sure he would endorse everything I have said about the film and more. Find it and watch it. And check out Roger’s website – – to read his many critiques and blogs. As Maurice said, every time you read a Roger Ebert review, you want to go and see that film, no matter if you have seen it a hundred times already. I shall test this theory myself, by reading his review of Apocalyse Now! a film I have seen at least 100 times!

 ApocalypseNowShorts International

Before this, I went to the afternoon short film programme in the Brandon Hotel Conference theatre (on the first floor if you’re coming any of the days this week. Shows there are at 11.00am and 2.00pm). The Kerry Film Festival has an arrangement with a number of other film festivals around the world, by which they send each other their winning entries of the current year. It expands the exposure for the film makers, and the experience of the audience.

This year the films came from a Turkish Film Festival. The standard was extremely high. Well shot, beautifully acted in the dramas, and on the whole well realised in terms of the film’s arcs and intentions, at least insofar as I understand those qualities to be essential to any film, indeed any work of the creative imagination.

There is an Audience Award at the Kerry Film Festival, so we were asked to single one out. For that purpose, it came down to two of the films for me, and I think for most of the audience with me (we were many enough to make an audience, while small enough to exchange views): Derin Nefes Al [Take A Deep Breath], and Die Schaukel Des Sargmachers [The Swing Of The Coffin Maker]. Die Schaukel probably swung it for the arc of drama, as it was a full story at 29 minutes, but Derin Nefes Al swung it for the poignancy and effectiveness of the film (that got my vote in the end).

All of the films touched on estrangement, of divided families and isolated people, and the one animation, which was a protest film but very well plotted to keep back its final reveal, a dreadful fact I certainly had no idea of before seeing this.

Kucuk Kara Baliklar [Little Black Fish] is a film about three different women who have gone abroad to make their lives grow, also well made and told. As the film expresses it, a little fish must go to a bigger ocean to grow. This is the metaphor contained in the title.

Giving prizes, making competition between works of art is essentially a false premise. Films like these don’t compare. Which one hit you most is also the one to which you are, for a load of reasons way beyond the film itself, most vulnerable. Derin Nefes Al touched me perhaps, because I have daughters, because I personally abhor people in a position of power using it to abuse rather than nurture, and because the actress at the heart of it was just magical. There are three kinds of actors: those who imagine themselves in that situation, those who just pretend, and those who become that person. Nesrin Cavadzade was in this last category, totally real. It could have been a documentary except it wasn’t, its edges were all sharpened by the performances and the editing.

Nesrin Cavadzade

Film Festivals are all about films like these, and in a minute I’m off to watch some more, the Animation entrants. Actually I am here as the Adjudicator of the Animation competition, and I have already given my verdict but no-one but me and Roísin McGuigan know it yet (well, her excellent team as well, I suppose). You get to see films which quite frankly, you most likely won’t get another chance to see. They won’t be on at your local multiplex (maybe one or two of the feature films if you’re lucky). Do you, like me, still remember the days when films would be preceded, after the advertisements, by short films? Why don’t they do that again, and give some of these little gems an airing. Well, I don’t suppose I have any film distributors in my readership, though you never can tell with this marvellous internet thingy…

If you’re ever in driving distance of a film festival and you haven’t tried it yet, go, you’ll be surprised, you’ll be enchanted. Especially if you’re in driving distance of Tralee this week, and also Killarney, Waterville or Kenmare, where the festival is showing films in the evenings (I’m off to Killarney this evening to see The Rover), get in the car, and, as Nicholas Cage says in the brilliant Wild At Heart, “Stab and steer!”


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