Critic's cancer keeps him in Chicago

Chicago Sun-Times critic and famed thumb-raiser Roger Ebert has been a mainstay at the Hawaii International Film Festival nearly every year since 1984 — when he was called as a replacement for the previous year’s guest critic, the late Gene Siskel.

This year, however, Ebert’s battle with cancer will keep him from leaving the Windy City for the Land of the Lei.

He will be missed at the festival, organizers and attendees say. The Pulitzer winner’s boostering not only has helped make HIFF a major annual event on the islands, but has also helped validate the fest internationally.

“His attendance and participation early on really helped to lend an air of credibility to HIFF,” says Michael Tsai, who has covered the festival for the Honolulu Advertiser. “Ebert was one of the few national critics to pick up on the growing importance of Asian cinema in the ’80s and ’90s, and his continued presence has helped to maintain that credibility even during a few rough years.”

Adds Donne Dawson, Hawaii state film commissioner and former marketing director of the festival: “Roger’s involvement has done great things to boost HIFF’s profile. … He’s let the film world know that this is a festival to be taken seriously.”

Ebert — usually attending for an entire week — served as a bridge between films and fans.

“Roger is the consummate professional,” Dawson says: “someone always willing to go above and beyond to reach out and connect with the audiences.”

Traditionally, according to Chuck Boller, the fest’s exec director, Ebert not only has hosted Democracy in the Dark film discussions — in which he conducts a stop-and-start analysis of a single film over three days (past picks have included “Vertigo” and “Citizen Kane”), he has done everything from host the awards and schmooze at the private pre-fest jury party to model festival T-shirts.

On top of that, people cherish the times he has given unknown filmmakers a major boost.

“I was completely and utterly flattered that he even bothered to sit through the film, and I was even more blown away that he liked it,” says Georgia Lee, writer/director/co-producer of the 2005 HIFF entry “Red Doors,” whose profile Ebert raised with a mention in his Sun-Times column.

James Sereno got a career kick from Ebert — without even having a feature film in the lineup. The Hawaii-based filmmaker heard that, at a screening of the festival’s trailer — which Sereno filmed — Ebert stood up in the crowd and “screamed that he loved it, and it was one of the best festival trailers he had ever seen.” At a later workshop, Ebert asked Sereno if it would be okay to show the trailer as part of his annual Ebertfest festival of overlooked films.

Without Ebert, HIFF goes on, of course — albeit with some changes.

“We thought about doing a screening of one of Ebert’s picks,” says Boller. “But we thought it would be unfair to do it without him.”

Fest organizers are optimistic about a return in 2007.

“We’ve made no effort to replace him,” Boller emphasizes. “When he comes back, he can do it all again.”

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