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Back to the Chalkboard: Empathy and LIFE ITSELF

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life itself

In a recent text exchange with a screenwriter friend of mine, I lamented, “Life is Sooooo F*#king Hard!” Without getting into the details of my travails, I can tell you I don’t have Ebola virus and I am not homeless and starving. I understand that on the spinning roulette wheel of life, I’m very, very fortunate. Still, life is hard, and what happens away from our keyboards out in the real world – no matter how rich, poor, healthy or sick we may be – will most definitely obstruct our process and delay our momentum if we let it, when what we really should be doing is using it as fuel.

The day after I sent that pitiful text, I was given the incredible opportunity to see the Roger Ebert biodoc Life Itself, based on his memoir, and then hear the film’s director, Steve James, speak about the unique challenge of adapting a book and a very famous life into a documentary film. I was granted a much-needed dose of perspective watching Mr. Ebert – debilitated and in chronic pain – adapt to his new reality and continue to be prolific over his last difficult months. Some say his blog, which he used as a replacement for At the Movies when he could no longer appear on camera, was the best writing of his career. And when he stepped in front of the camera again, he eagerly allowed his struggle to be shared in James’ beautiful, inspiring, heart-breaking film. Early in the movie, we hear this quote from Mr. Ebert:

"We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."

Has it ever been said better? He’s urging us to share our journeys and to create empathy with our fellow human beings. I always warn students away from direct adaptations of their own lives because as hard and dramatic as life can be, it rarely leads to great beat by beat cinema. Most of us do not lead cinematic lives, but we do have cinematic experiences. We see. We hear. We feel. We interpret. We act. That’s the raw material we must distill and repurpose into entertaining fuel for the empathy machine.

To me, the title Life Itself references the notion that movies are like life itself. Analogies. Metaphors. Reflections through which we see ourselves as individuals and as a civilization. Roger Ebert’s life was about movies, he lived it as if it were a movie, and then it ultimately became a movie. To the very end, he allowed his journey to be reflected in his work, to create empathy, and to influence life and art through insightful, heart-felt commentary.

Writing can be powerful therapy if you let it. And you must let it, even in the dark times, or you will be left silent. Roger Ebert lost his jaw. Lost his voice. Lost his life. But he was never left silent, and he never will be, because he kept on writing.

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