By now most of you must have heard of my success of getting to Ebertfest. For those of you who don’t know here’s what happened. I had lost all hope and went to the airport in Doha to buy a ticket back to Egypt. I was standing in line to get that ticket when my father pointed to a TV screen. “London Heathrow airports are back in business. For the time being only those with cancelled flights will be served.”
Before booking the ticket, I asked the guy behind the counter to find me a route to Champaign. It was my last attempt and also my last chance to at least attend one full day at Ebertfest. It took the guy about thirty minutes to find a route to my final destination. “That’ll cost you $8,200.”, he said. My father looked at me and asked how much my previous ticket cost. I told him that it cost me around a thousand. By chance, a representative from British Airways was passing by and overheard our conversation. He then turned to us, and told us that if our previous flight was cancelled due to the volcanic ash, BA would take care of the costs as long as I fly with either British Airways or American Airlines. The stars must have been aligned for me, because the route we found was all American Airlines. Anyway, so they gave me the ticket, but there was still a problem. I would go from Doha to Bahrain, from Bahrain to London, from London to Chicago, and from Chicago to Champaign. Two of these flights were still not confirmed, so they put me on standby for the flight the next day.
That day, I told no one, except for Roger Ebert and Mary Susan, about my tiny chance of attending this one day at the festival. If everything went well, I would miss my panel discussion, but I’d attend the 24th and the last screening on the 25th. That was good enough for me. Besides it was either that, or back to Egypt.
We went back home at around 2 a.m. My father went to sleep right away. I stayed up all night; I just couldn’t sleep. Whenever I would close my eyes, I’d think of meeting the foreign correspondents, Roger and Chaz. I thought of how happy I’d be if I got that seat, and of course, how sad it would be to get disappointed one last time. I couldn’t take that anymore.
I slept for an hour or two at around 8 a.m. When I woke up, I packed my last few items, and started heading to the airport. I waited and waited; people kept coming in and my little hope for that seat began to vanish. Finally, at the last moment around 8 p.m., the airline representative approached me, “You’re lucky. Someone didn’t show up.” I said my goodbyes to my father, and checked my bag in. I was still in disbelief, and didn’t think of it that much at the moment. I tried to contact Roger or Mary Susan, but the internet reception there was terrible.
The following 23 hours (16 hours of flight) felt like a week, as I stopped in Bahrain, London, and Chicago, rushing from one terminal to the next. The last thing I wanted was to miss my flight, and blame the failure of arriving to Ebertfest on myself instead of the volcano.
When I finally got to Chicago, I sent Omer Mozaffer a message:
“Hi Omer. It’s your buddy Wael. Ezayak? (Arabic for How are you) I can’t reach Mary Susan or Roger. I just arrived in Chicago.”
Omer later told me that at that precise moment, he read the message and showed it to Roger. Roger read it and his eyes widened by the surprise arrival. Omer, aka the unofficial leader of the foreign correspondents, then replied to me and gave me directions to the hotel I was to stay in. I waited at the airport for 6 hours before my short flight to Champaign took off.
When I arrived there, it was Friday night, around 8 o’clock. Meanwhile, everyone was watching “Synecdoche, New York”, so I took a cab to the Illini Union Hotel and checked in. I was very tired but decided to attend the mid-fest party late that night. Grace Wang was kind enough to pick me up since I didn’t know where to go or anything. She turned out to be this wonderful person, much nicer than her already kind personality online. That’s when I first met Tom Dark. We clicked in an instant. On our way to the party, we talked about everything from the things I’ve missed in Ebertfest to my blog entries.
The party was very crowded. Grace spotted the rest of the foreign correspondents, grabbed me and lead me through the chatting crowd. Omar Moore, Omer Mozaffer, Seongyong Cho and Michael Mirasol were there. Each of them greeted me with a hug and several “You MADE IT!” celebrations. They were most welcoming. We chatted a bit and then I asked about Roger. He couldn’t make it to the party, since he felt tired and wanted to call it a night. They told me that I’d meet him at his place the following day where Chaz and Roger would be having a breakfast party for us bloggers. I was most excited. I was also interviewed by Sandra Kofler from the Wall Street Journal. She mentions me in her article about the festival here: http://j.mp/dBYIrU
I spotted Charlie Kaufman from across the room. He was very busy answering all kinds of questions about the recent screening of his masterpiece. A few minutes later my main man, Evan (an Ebertfest volunteer) walked me home. I needed some sleep if I wanted to wake up for that breakfast at Roger’s place.
The next day, I met up with Grace, Omer, the wonderful Gerardo Valero, his sweet wife and Tom. The group of 6 or 7 then split up into two cars. I went with Omer. We all knew that Roger had not seen me yet and Omer was particularly excited to see his reaction. Carol (Roger’s assistant) let us in after a few minutes of standing in front of the elevator. When Chaz saw me she gave the most welcoming hug. “I can’t believe you’re actually here.” she said. I kept smiling and told her how glad I am to finally make it. We then went inside and enjoyed the coffee, croissants and so on. I mingled with the crowd and met some wonderful people including the executive producer of Chaz and Ebert’s upcoming show, and an old lady from Canada who was just adorable. I hate myself for forgetting her name. I asked her “If you could recommend just one Canadian film, what would it be?” “Shake Hands with the Devil”, she replied. Another film was added to the wish list.
Roger was still upstairs but after about ten minutes he came down. I looked at him, he looked at me. “Look who made it. Wael from Egypt.”, Omer said. We then hugged each other. “It’s an honor sir”, I whispered. Everyone was looking at us and I was at the happiest state of my life. My mentor was shaking my shoulder with joy. Gerardo took a few pictures of us smiling at each other. I hope he sends them soon. I’m smiling right now just writing about that moment.
The small party went on and I met some other interesting individuals. Everyone seemed to know who I am. Apparently, Roger and Chaz would update the audience every day about the progress of my trip. I must’ve gotten dozens of “We’re so glad you made it. Your trip was so dramatic. But YOU MADE IT!” I’d smile each time to the strangers. The then strangers are now friends.
At one point I spotted Roger sitting on his chair when nobody around him. He was all alone, so I jumped at the chance and sat next to him. We talked about my grandfather, my jetlag, the updates of the festival, and how I’d go through everything again just to meet Roger, Chaz and the far-flung gang as I like to call them. He also signed the festival program for me. “To Wael, My Friend. Roger” I appreciate 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).
An hour or so later it was time for all of us to head to the festival. I waited outside with Grace and Omer. Charlie Kauffman came and joined. I told him who I was and where I’m from, we shook hands, and I told him how many times I had seen “Synecdoche, New York” (5). He was amazed that the film was even released in Egypt. I also told him that I admire the fact that he doesn’t explain his film in interviews and how he should never reveal more than what is displayed on screen. “It would ruin it. What I love most about your films is the fact that every time I re-watch them, I get something new out of the experience.”
He nodded and said something in the lines of “I really appreciate you saying that because I get a lot of shit about that.” He was leaving Ebertfest shortly after, so I shook his hand and said goodbye. I was glad to meet the greatest screenwriter alive before missing the chance.
Tom Dark, Grace, and I started heading to the Virginia Theater. We grabbed cups of coffee from a café on our way. When we finally got there, I realized that I had no pass. Grace told me about a gift-bag that contained the pass but my room didn’t have that. We tried explaining to the volunteers that I was a foreign correspondent but they only appointed us to someone else. They were doing their job. By luck at that moment Roger was entering the theater. He pointed at me, we shook hands again, and then he waved his hands into the entrance. This time nobody dared to stop me on my way in.
Once inside, I admired the Virginia Theater, studying every single detail of the beautifully preserved design of the place. The theater was pretty much full but I managed to find a seat upfront. I was then approached by another volunteer who asked for my pass. “You can’t sit there.”, he said. “Yes, he can” said a voice from behind me. It was Tom Dark, he had saved a seat for me all the way at the back, a few seats next to Roger. A few moments later Chaz came up on stage.
“I’m very happy to tell you some of the people have been blogging and tweeting and the News Gazette wrote an article about one of our foreign correspondents who couldn’t come. Wael Khairy, from Egypt, Wael is here. Wael stand.” _Chaz
A thunder of applause followed. I stood up put my hand on my heart. I kept smiling for the ten seconds of applause. The hundreds or a thousand of seated people turned around and looked at me as they continued to applaud. I couldn’t think straight. I was being introduced and put on the spotlight. I can write a long list of adjectives describing how I felt at that moment (proud, happy, thankful, happy, grateful, happy, touched, and very happy).
We then watched a nice British film called “I Capture the Castle”. It was my first time seeing the film, and I enjoyed it very much. I didn’t think it was a masterpiece but still, it was much better than most family films I can think of. At the Q & A, Grace Wang discussed how the film was about adolescence. Another panelist (the daughter of the costume designer) thought the film was essentially about love, a member of the audience said it was about the process and struggle to write. I thought it wasn’t about any of this and about all that too. Let me explain, the way I saw it, it was about the discovery of things, be it love and how it can be both beautiful yet painful at the same time, the discovery of an adolescences’ sexual frustration, the discovery of what it’s like to have a first kiss, and the discovery of that tiny spark that brings an end to a writer’s block. I wanted to raise my hand and say all that but by the time my thoughts had formed, they had picked the last question by the audience.
After the Q &A, I went to get more coffee to stay awake. I went outside to catch a breath of fresh air and saw Tom smoking one of his cigars. We talked about my censorship incident and went back in shortly. The same executive-producer from last time handed me an All-Screenings Pass, just in case anything happened. The next screening was “Vincent: A Life in Color”. I sat up front next to a film professor from Ohio. We talked a lot and he turned out to be quite a guy. Right behind me sat Gerardo and his wife. I greeted them once again and Gerardo told me “You know what Wael, they should do a statue of you.” What a compliment? “Huh? Why?” He told me that the day before, Roger, and Grace and himself were discussing the subtitle incident. I was touched by the fact that they thought of me while I was gone. He also told me that during their panel discussion, my far flung buddies shouted out at the camera that they miss me and that they wished I was here. Again, I was very touched. It seems like everyone was so welcome, nice and thoughtful. I just couldn’t help but keep smiling randomly throughout the day.
“Vincent: A Life in Color” was one of the most uplifiting feel good documentaries I had ever seen. I was surprised that it wasn’t as well known as it deserves to be. The choices Roger picks for his festival are truly unique and pitch perfect. I saw Vincent himself at the breakfast party but I didn’t know who he was. At one point he put his hand on my blazer and said “Ouuu feeling groovy?” After the documentary I appreciated that random moment even more. The entire audience was touched by his story, at parts everyone was smiling, at others the room was so quiet you could’ve heard a fly pass by. “Vincent: A Life in Color” is a bittersweet masterpiece of a documentary. I love the fact that it started out by displaying Vincent as this crazy guy dancing on a bridge wearing weird suits, and then it kept getting closer and closer to Vincent the man not Vincent the public image. Eventually, the wide shots got closer narrower up till a headshot interviewing the man at the end. I still don’t understand the motif of his actions but that’s exactly what I love about the man’s spirit.
After the credits rolled, Vincent came up on the stage and did his little performance of twirling his suit. A standing ovation followed. After that the Q & A started. I was surprised that it was the director’s first film and that she paid for every cent. She was a waitress first, and suddenly got the idea of doing a documentary on the by now urban legend known as, well he’s known as a lot of things.
During the break, Chaz came up to me and introduced me to Melissa Merli from The News Gazette. I was interviewed by her outside. She was very nice and I thanked her personally after picking up several copies of the newspaper on Monday. I asked Roger to thank Chaz for me. It was mighty kind of her to get me that interview. You can read all about it here: http://j.mp/bGY13B
After the interview we went back in to watch “Trucker”. It exceeded my expectations and I now consider it one of the best films of 2008. The performances were what surprised me most. Michelle Monaghan delivered a once in a lifetime performance and I can see her career taking off the way Charlize Theron’s career took off after “Monster”. There’s one shot in that movie that I think is simply beautiful. It’s when Diane Ford and her son sit in the middle of nowhere facing the screen with a gap between them and an empty landscape of desert as the background. It takes place much earlier in the film which is when both characters are quite distant from each other, the emptiness of that shot with the vast space expressed so much about the characters at that stage of their lives. As the film progressed, the gap between them eventually vanished and they end up in each other’s arms. I was also struck by the realistic friendship between Diane and her best friend, Runner played excellently by Nathan Fillion. Especially since my best friend is girl (Amina). I understood many of the scenes of them together and how they were the only ones who truly understood each other. The theme of their relationship touched me more than any chemistry between two fictional friends in a long time.
About an hour later, I was enjoying the company of Grace and Tom once again in the Green Room. We talked about his work, her potential future as a writer, and how the book about Egyptian censorship and piracy that I’m working on will probably never see the light of any bookshelves till the Egyptian government changes for the better. Roger Ebert was also the subject of our conversation. We talked about his generosity and how interactive he is, being one of the few critics who have daily conversation with their readers. As soon as the vegetarian macaroni dishes were wiped by our appetite, we headed back to the festival for the final screening of the day, “Barfly”.
I knew about the film but never got the chance to actually seeing it. Now that I have, I can honestly consider it one of the greatest films of the 80’s. Mickey Rourke’s performance is one of the greatest male lead showcases in film history. I was shocked to find out later on that he wasn’t even nominated in 1987. Upon learning that I recalled the Academy’s other 80’s mistake of not nominating Robert De Niro in “The King of Comedy”. “Barfly” is so deep and layered with philosophical themes wrapped up in a hilarious yet dark screenplay. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. It’s the film I enjoyed most out of the five films I enjoyed there. The Q & A was one of a kind with the surprise appearance of Barbet Schroeder. He shared some interesting stories about the making of the film and the subject of his story, Charles Burkowski. At first I thought the film was ok, but now that it has grown on me, I think it’s a masterpiece that should be considered a modern classic in years to come.
As soon as the day came to an end, I had to get some sleep. The caffeine effect was no longer working and my eye-lids became more and more heavy. Instead of going to the party, I went to sleep and finally got some proper rest. Waking up the next morning, I met the wonderful Jim Emerson. I knew him from Roger’s blog and read his reviews for the past year. He’s probably the only film critic other than Ebert that I follow too. He told me how dramatic my arrival was and how he was so very glad that I made it. We talked about Egypt, and he showed me the tattoo on his arm of the Eye of Horus. I love that symbol which is why I got Grace a silver necklace of that same symbol from Egypt. The eye is represented as a figure with 6 parts. These 6 parts correspond to the six senses – Touch, Taste, Hearing, Thought, Sight, Smell. These are the 6 parts of the *eye*. The eye is the receptor of *input*. It has these six doors, to receive data. It was also believed to be a protective symbol. Anyway, Jim was very kind, warm, welcoming and generous enough to mention me in his Ebertfest wrap-up article: http://j.mp/c5IpD9 I bought myself a few copies of this Chicago Sun-Times issue from the airport the following day.
The last screening of Ebertfest was the heartbreaking documentary, “Song Sung Blue” about Thunder & Lightning, 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 herself performed afterwards and the theater 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. I also noticed that Roger is one of the most humorous guys I’ve ever met. He waves and points with his hands at pitch perfect moments causing waves of laughter. I doubt he had that physical humor before his operation. It’s amazing how well he’s taking his rough journey, inspirational to say the least.
After the Q & A, and the fifth presentation of the golden thumb I had witnessed, Roger and Chaz wrapped up the show and everyone was on their way back home. It was a bittersweet end to a joyful experience. I have attended many festivals in Egypt, Rome, and London but never anything quite like this. I can’t recall any festival where the audience played such an important role. It was as close as you’d get to a group hug of film lovers.
By the time I exchanged emails with the all the new people I met in the festival, Roger had left the theater. He was nowhere to be found and I feared that I wouldn’t get the chance to thank him properly and say my goodbyes. When I returned to my room, Roger sent me an email to meet him at the Steak & Shake. I met up with Michael Mirasol then and went to the address provided by Roger. It wasn’t my first time there though. Michael had set up this Steak & Shake lunch for me earlier that day. Many of the foreign correspondents and Tom Dark attended the special meal. The burger was phenomenal. Anyway, when I got there, we sat at a long table and shortly after Roger and Chaz arrived. As soon as Roger came in, our eyes were fixed on each other. He knew I wanted to spend more time with him.
It is there that I got to talk to Chaz a lot. She was surprised when she quizzed me and Omar Moore about what her favorite movie was. “I know!” I said. “It’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’”. She smiled, patted me on the back and thanked me for knowing this. We talked about Egypt more, my grandfather, our favorite films, the festival, her show, her job, how I got a job at C Mag, how she originally thought I was in my 60’s, and the Roger Ebert effect on my blog.
About half an hour later, Roger sat next to me and asked about my jetlag. I told him that I had just adjusted to the time zone. “In a way…because I was so tired yesterday making the day extra long for me, I kind of felt like I had spent three days in Urbana not one. In a good way of course”, I told him. He asked if I could go back to Chicago to spend more quality time but I couldn’t since my military permission has an expiry date. I saw the disappointment in his eyes and it broke my heart. I would do anything to spend more time with the man.I did promise to visit Chicago more often and told him that I’d tell him about my visits beforehand. We continued talking about Mary Susan and some other matters. At one humorous moment we observed as Seongyong Cho nodded. Before I knew it, it was time for him to leave. We hugged it out and he waved goodbye to all of us.
I spent two days at Ebertfest and got to talk with Roger in two occasions, once each day, both the most memorable occasions of my stay there. I wish I talked more with him there but we both knew that I made it to Ebertfest and got to spend some quality time with him and the foreign correspondents, that’s all that mattered. A viratual friendship materialized.
Later that night I had dinner with Michael, Grace and Jackson at some crappy Chinese restaurant but we made the most out of it. We laughed, joked, and talked about our home countries. After dinner we sat at the Illini Union reception and talked about our first encounters with Roger, and it progressed from there. We also talked about film criticism in general and our jobs back home. The night came to an end at Grace’s place where we chilled for hours talking about films, imitated 1-800 ads, and finally called it a night. The next morning was a sad one. I said my goodbyes and thought of how we bonded over the past two days. I also bonded with my uddy Evan that day. I spent the rest of the afternoon with the young aspiring filmmaker, soccer player, band member and comedian (talk about hard work and potential). He told me some very interesting tales about his love for the TV Show “Scrubs” and how he would wear scrubs to school in an attempt to save the show from cancellation. He took me to nice fast food restaurant that served one of the best butter burgers I’ve ever tasted. After buying some DVDs, it was time to head to the airport. We promised to keep contact.
I slept through most of the fights and time passed in a fast paste. When I got back home, the same friends who did their best to find me a plane ticket to Ebertfest greeted me. They asked questions and I answered them. I told about every single detail, and they were glad to see me so happy. So was it worth it? Gerardo was so very friendly as was his wife; Omer Mozaffer treated me like a relative; Grace spent so much time with me and we got to know each other so well, it feels like I knew her all my life; Michael became the one I could identify with most having similar backgrounds; Omar Moore always made sure I was laughing and captured so many magical moments with his camera; Seongyong Cho kept me busy with debates and film conversations; Tom Dark lectured me about writing; I enjoyed watching the charismatic Ali Arikan being all over the place; Chaz was so very kind and great to talk to; Carol is another one who kept me laughing whenever we’d meet up; and talking to Roger in person strengthened our friendship in an instant. It amazes me that in a matter of 48 hours, these people evolved from correspondents and people I admired, to friends I just can’t bear the thought of never seeing again. Looking back at how we all bonded, I can no longer think of them as friends but family, one big movie loving family.