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updated: 2/24/2014 2:25 PM

Ebert documentary filmmaker a 'magician'

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  • Documentary filmmaker Steve James, left, with Dann Gire, at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library.

      Documentary filmmaker Steve James, left, with Dann Gire, at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library.
    Courtesy Arlington HTS. Memorial Library

  • Audience members curious about the life of Roger Ebert gather to talk with filmmaker Steve James.

      Audience members curious about the life of Roger Ebert gather to talk with filmmaker Steve James.
    Courtesy Arlington HTS. Memorial Library


The Sundance Film Festival and the Arlington Heights Memorial Library shared a headliner last week, when award-winning filmmaker Steve James came to Arlington Heights less than a month after his newest documentary, "Life Itself" -- profiling legendary film critic Roger Ebert -- debuted at Sundance.

His candid presentation and Q&A with library patrons was something like his documentaries: it offered a rare chance to meet him away from the film festivals and his crowdfunding campaign, aimed at building support and funding for the Ebert documentary.

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Library officials booked him months ago as part of their new Human Library series, which highlights individuals with unique life perspectives. They also promoted his appearance as a precursor to Sunday's Academy Awards.

"As with Steve James, each program examines the life and work of an individual that is in some way special," said Caroline Marhin, program assistant, saying past guests have included a stroke survivor, a person with dwarfism and a fashion designer.

During the nearly two-hour presentation, James shared clips from his body of work, including "Hoop Dreams" and the Chicago street violence documentary, "The Interrupters," as well as "Life Itself" which is scheduled for theatrical release this summer.

Daily Herald film critic, Dann Gire joined James onstage and together they discussed filmmaking and in particular, ways of getting subjects to open up on screen.

Gire described James as a "magician" because he seems to be invisible, capturing raw and unguarded moments during his documentaries when people open up, despite being in front of cameras and wearing microphones.

"When you walk out of a James documentary," Gire said, "you walk away with that ethereally elusive thing called 'understanding.'"

James discussed styles of filmmaking, including cinema vérité, which he described as immersive and capturing life as it unfolds before the camera.

"My approach is to get subjects to a place of comfort, so it doesn't matter anymore (that there are cameras filming and sound technicians capturing the moment)," James said. "I like to think of it as a collaborative undertaking; we're actually kind of doing it together."

Besides, he added, making a film about someone is a way of saying their life matters.

"The forces in people's lives are so potent," James said, "that it doesn't matter that we're there."

Patrons were curious about how he chooses his subjects.

In the case of Roger Ebert, his subject was suggested to him. James said he accepted the idea after reading Ebert's 2011 memoir of the same name, which provided the narration for the documentary.

His film premiered exactly 20 years after James met Ebert, when he and Gene Siskel both reviewed "Hoop Dreams" after seeing it at Sundance, and widely promoted it.

"Roger lived a very rich and unpredictable life," James said. "I wanted to get my arms around his life, both personally and professionally.

"I felt honored to tell his story," he added, "and I'm happy with the way the film turned out."

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