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Thanks to the Toronto International Film Festival, I have the chance to encounter the legend. It’s only natural that wherever there are films, there are film critics. But I never would have thought that I would see Roger Ebert in person and shake hands with him.

It was pure serendipity. While browsing in Indigo on Bay Street, I noticed a sign saying Roger Ebert would be in that store signing his memoir Life Itself a few days later. I’d followed his reviews since his “Siskel and Ebert” days, the two-thumbs-up duo. By the way, Ebert’s right thumb up had been trademarked. Reviewing films for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, Roger Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism (1975), prolific all the way till his last two days.

Roger Ebert autograph Life Itself

This was not just about an autograph, or seeing a celebrity up close. It was about seeing a man who after torturous cancer treatments and surgeries for his thyroid, salivary gland and jaw, had lost a part of his face and the ability to talk and eat, and yet still maintained his humor and passions, who continued to press on to new ventures… this was about seeing life itself.

In the late afternoon on September 14, 2011, at the signing area in Indigo Books on Bay Street, people had been lining up for over an hour. I was one of them. At 7 pm, Roger came in walking slowly and with aid. He came on stage and faced the crowd. Together with his wife Chaz, they gave us a wave. Then he sat down and began signing. Photographs were allowed except for the rule of no posing. The Q & A session also began.

Chaz was his voice. She was personable and a film lover herself. She shared some of her views of the TIFF selections. As executive producer of “Ebert Presents at the Movies”, Chaz answered some questions without consulting Roger. But for most questions addressed to Roger, he would write on a small spiral notebook, handed it to Chaz to read out his answer.

Here are some of the notes I’d taken:

* Who influenced you the most?
He pointed to his wife standing behind him.

* Which decade is your favorite?
The 70’s… where you had The Godfather, Raging Bull…

* Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin?
Buster Keaton, albeit both are great.

* 3D?
Don’t ask. Story is number one.

* CGI (computer-generated imagery)?
Movies with CGI are soulless.

* All time best?
Citizen Kane.

* Favorite actor?
Robert Mitchum.

* Contemporary?
Al Pacino, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tilda Swinton

* Favorite Canadian directors?
Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Norman Jewison, Guy Maddin (thumb up)

* James Cameron?
Is James Cameron Canadian? Chaz asked in surprise.

* Favorite book?
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Canadian! A voice came from the back)

* Any pressure from movie producers to write a good review?
No, he hasn’t been pressured. He was beyond reproach, Chaz answered.

* Any movies you haven’t seen?
The Sound of Music

* If there’s a movie made about you, who’d you want to play you?
Philip Seymour Hoffman. Chaz added, Oprah to play me. Diana Ross would be good too.

* Advice for potential film critics?
Do you want to get paid? Roger answered with a question.
Yes and no. The questioner covered all bases.
Start blogging. Roger replied.

* How does your life influence the way you review a film?
It generates every word.

Definitely more than just an autograph. What an encounter. What a night.

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CLICK HERE to listen to an interview of Roger Ebert on CBC Radio during TIFF. Roger used a text-to-voice software as his speaking voice.

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