Roger and Me

I rarely mark down memorable dates on my email inbox. But Jan 13, 2010 is one I’ll never forget. It’s when I received this email from Roger Ebert:

Dear Michael,

Do you think it would be possible for you to come to Urbana-Champaign to attend Ebertfest 2010? …

We would like you to appear on a panel discussion, “Film lovers in the age of the internet,” on the morning of April 23. …

I hope you can accept. Your writing on films and other subjects has greatly impressed me. …

Here was my panicked reply:

My jaw dropped. My heart stopped. I’ll have to think about this very carefully. But if I am given the go signal, I’ll go in a heartbeat. …

I was living at the time in Saudi Arabia. In the first quarter of 2009 my company in Malaysia let me go because of the global economic crisis (it’s not just Americans who have a beef with the buffoons of Wall Street). My wife became the breadwinner at that point, but our income was not the same, and our savings were at risk of being hit. After looking for two months, every scarce job opening was fought for tooth and nail, and opportunities for expats were next to nil. An opportunity opened up in Saudi Arabia, one of the few places not affected by the financial crisis.

I would have been a fool not to accept. I did and off I went by myself.

Being in Saudi Arabia was… interesting (that’s another blog entry). It pays incredibly well, but if money’s all you want, that’s all you’ll get. I dealt with a culture and norms that went against my very principles, but you do what have to do to survive.

Living there was a blow to my movie-going habits. The only film I saw in my time there was AVATAR (and I had to go all the way to Bahrain to see it). My film awareness was on life support, and Roger’s film reviews and commentary were my IV. I came to know Roger a bit better after he mentioned my blog among “The blogs of his blogs”, which stunned me. I’m a regular on his, and never did I think he would take the time to really delve into my interests. It shows how open-minded and generous he really is.

Then came my traffic accident (which I blogged about here and here), one of the worst experiences of my life. It took me about a month to fully recuperate. When Roger learned of it, I was touched by his concern.

So imagine my succeeding astonishment when he asked me to be one of his foreign correspondents:

December 21, 2009

By the way, what do you think about the Foreign Correspondents? Do you want to be in or out?

As usual, my scaredy cat reply:

O man, I would love to be in, But if I need to be on video, I think I’d crap all over myself.

What would I need to be in that doesn’t involve my double chin?

And then came my “What the hell are you doing? Are you crazy?” reply:

On 2nd thought. I’ll give it a shot. I’m just nervous, but what the hell. 🙂

So far I’ve done 6 pieces for the Foreign Correspondents page, all of which I put a lot of work in and am very proud of (rehearsal is king). Because of Roger’s belief in me, I’ve rediscovered my passion for movies again (the classics especially). I hadn’t written about film for what seemed to be the longest time, because it wasn’t what put food on the table. I found my voice again, which I thought I had lost for good. Though it’s not my day job, I’m trying to bring back film criticism back into my life again. I understand now fully what A.O. Scott told me: Criticism is a way of life. Without it, I’m not whole.

As for Roger’s invitation to attend Ebertfest, as of now, I have been writing this piece since 3am in the morning at The Illini Union where I will be staying until the festival ends, too giddy to sleep, with too many thoughts running through me. I have left my job in Saudi Arabia, and will be working again in Malaysia next month. I’ll be serving as a panelist and getting a chance to discuss a film with the great film critic David Bordwell (Yes, I’m OMG-ing in anticipation and mostly fright). I’ll also be blogging about Roger Ebert’s Film Festival from here on.

This is the first time I’ve written an entry like this. I was immensely concerned that this would come across as arrogant, “tooting” my horn so to speak. It’s not my style to be write so much about myself, as I like to keep low key.

Asking for advice, fellow Filipino film critic Francis “Oggs” Cruz (among others) told me to just do it, and not to be too modest. “You worked hard for it.”

In my own way, yes I did. But I’ll never forget Roger’s kindness in helping me get here. From a near-death event, I’m now seeing my dream come true. He has become in his own way, a dear friend to me.

Roger wrote me after my accident:

December 10, 2009

Heal. Calm. Rededicate your life which has been given back to you.

Thanks to you Roger, I will.

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