I miss Roger Ebert already

The "best known film critic in America" has died, aged 70.

I miss Roger Ebert already. His great achievement as a critic was to make discussing movies personal. He was a great anti-intellectual and a populist - in the best sense of the word - in that that he approached pop culture with a liberal spirit: hoping for the best, eviscerating the worst. Reading Ebert on film provided more than one generation with the confidence to talk about their experiences at the cinema, for work, or for fun. You didn't even need to speak, if you didnt want to. Everyone has thumbs after all.

Ebert began his career as a reporter and features writer, hired by the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966. When he moved on to reviewing the following year, he took the narrative-driven fundamentals of beat reporting with him to the arts desk. He had a prodigious memory, a head full of stories. His memoir, Life Itself, published in 2011, allowed him to focus on the activity that had come to define his life, movie-going, and providing him with a unique way of understanding the life it produced: “I was born inside the movie of my life,” the book begins. “The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”

His accidental entry into criticism, regular appearances on television (on Sneak Previews and At the Movies), led to disgruntlement from thoroughly-schooled rivals who accused him of reducing the art of reviewer to a series of subjective gestures. But all criticism is, to some degree, subjective – is it not? Orwell testified to the idea that a writer simply likes a book or does not. The challenge comes in attempting to justify that emotion. Ebert did it daily, for over forty years.

Only three days ago Ebert announced on his blog that he was taking a “leave of presence”. In recent years, I have followed his thoughts on illness, religion, and the future of criticism, almost as regularly as his reviews (astonishingly, last year was Ebert’s most prolific – he reviewed 306 movies and wrote weekly blog posts). Despite having undergone a series of debilitating operations since his diagnosis with thyroid cancer in 2002, he planned to oversee a series of projects (including a new website, the annual Ebertfest and an upcoming documentary on his life), while reserving the right to “wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.”

For many, Eberts “leave of presence” has become an almost palpable absence of presence: in print, online (despite his best intentions, Ebert became a prolific tweeter) and on television. President Barack Obama paid him tribute: “For a generation of Americans – especially Chicagoans – Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive.” 

At the last, he addressed his readers, to whom through writing about film he had become a sweet great-uncle, in the conspicuous glasses and over-sized jacket of a local oracle. His final blog post ended with an expression of gratitude: “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

The American critic in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

LORRAINE MALLINDER
Show Hide image

A dictator in the family: why Ebrima Jammeh wants retribution in Gambia

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

On 21 January Yahya Jammeh left Gambia. Within minutes of the erstwhile dictator’s departure on a private jet, relieved crowds began to gather at Westfield Junction, a popular meeting point in Serrekunda, the largest town in the country.

For 22 years, Jammeh had cultivated a sorcerer-like persona, claiming he could cure HIV with herbs, ordering a nationwide witch hunt and magicking away countless dissenters to fates unknown.

After losing elections in December, he brought the country to the brink of war, staring down the West African troops waiting at the Senegalese border to remove him. Unable to conjure a way out, he eventually agreed to be exiled to Equatorial Guinea.

Leaning against a car at Westfield, Ebrima Jammeh (pictured above) watched the celebrations with a bitter-sweet expression. Shouting over blaring car horns, he said that he wanted justice for his father, murdered by the regime in 2005. His father, it turned out, was Haruna Jammeh, a first cousin of Yahya. The story of how Haruna and his sister, Masie Jammeh, were “disappeared” by security forces is well known here – a striking example of the former ruler’s ruthlessness.

Days after Yahya Jammeh’s departure, I met Haruna’s widow, Fatimah, with Ebrima and his sister Isatou. They recalled the early Nineties, when “Cousin Yahya” would drop by for green tea in his army officer’s uniform and brag about becoming the next leader of Gambia. “He was very arrogant,” Fatimah said.

Haruna and Yahya grew up on the family farm in Kanilai, on Gambia’s southern border with Senegal. They would play together in the fields. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand in hand with Yahya to school. They were more than cousins, Ebrima said. People called them “cousin-brothers”.

Once they were adults, Haruna remained protective of his cousin. He was working as a restaurant manager, and was a rising star in the Novotel group. Often, he helped out the then-impecunious Yahya with money or food. Few expected the hothead lieutenant to become the next president.

But in 1994 Yahya seized power in a coup. “I heard his voice on the radio and I was surprised,” Fatimah told me. “I phoned my mum and said: ‘Look, he did it.’” By 2000 Yahya had coaxed Haruna into ditching his hotel job and returning to manage the farm. The president had big plans for the farm, which grew into a huge enterprise that controlled many of the nation’s bakeries and butchers – thriving allegedly through land-grabs and subsidies.

Fatimah and the children stayed behind in Serrekunda, but would often visit. Ebrima had happy memories of meals with the extended family. Yahya was by now a distant figure, surrounded by bodyguards on the rare occasions when he visited. Ebrima remembered his uncle telling him to “work hard at school”.

In 2004, Haruna accused some soldiers of stealing fuel and food, and started to speak out against the regime’s frequent sackings and arrests. When he was removed from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” Ebrima said. Haruna did not expect his younger “cousin-brother” would harm him.

In 2005 Ebrima, by then 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back,’” he told me. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”

Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister Masie also disappeared. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing, too,” Isatou said. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”

In the years that followed, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the backstreets of Serrekunda. Questions about their surname were common but they denied all links to the president. For a long time, they had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive.

In 2014 Ebrima learned the truth from an interview on a Senegalese radio station with Bai Lowe, a former driver with the “Jungulers” (an elite presidential hit squad). Lowe said he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in July 2005. Their deaths were recorded in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

The interview was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image of the president”. She said Masie had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader with reputed supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the Jungulers on Haruna, Yahya then targeted Masie, too.

On 26 January Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned from exile in Senegal. He leads an unwieldy, eight-party coalition with differing views on how Jammeh should be held to account. Barrow, who claims to have inherited a “virtually bankrupt” state, has promised to launch a truth and reconciliation process to investigate human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. In interviews, he has chosen his words carefully, avoiding any mention of prosecution.

But, like many of those who have suffered, Ebrima wants retribution. “I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times