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Steve James ponders ‘Life Itself’

Gene Siskel (left) and Roger Ebert in filmmaker Steve James’s “Life Itself.”Kevin Horan

In 1994, Roger Ebert championed the documentary “Hoop Dreams” by the then little-known filmmaker Steve James. The film became a hit, establishing James’s career. Two decades later, James was entrusted with making “Life Itself,” a documentary based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same name.

Tragically, Ebert died before the film was completed.

A candid homage to America’s most beloved critic, the film has already won awards from numerous critics groups and has been short listed as a nominee for the best documentary Oscar. On Sunday, it will air at 7 and 9 p.m. on CNN.

On the phone from his home in Oak Park, a suburb of Ebert’s hometown of Chicago, James discussed the importance of criticism and movies – and the meaning of “Life Itself.”

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Q. “Beloved critic” seems oxymoronic after seeing how the profession is depicted in movies like “Birdman.” How did Roger earn that distinction?

A. I saw that scene in “Birdman” and thought — what a great fantasy for a filmmaker! But I personally have been well treated by critics, especially Roger. He inspired love and respect because he supported independent and aspiring filmmakers. He did that throughout his career, and after winning the Pulitzer and then with the show with Gene Siskel [“At the Movies”] he recognized his power and used it in a judicious way on behalf of deserving filmmakers and films.

Q. As a beneficiary of that power, was it difficult to be objective making this film?

A. No. First of all, the project wasn’t my idea. One of the producers asked me to do it. Before accepting I read Roger’s memoir. I found it amazing, but if I came away from it not liking this guy, or found his life uninteresting, I wouldn’t have made the movie.

Q. Has film criticism lost its relevance with Roger’s death?

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A. As Roger has said, film criticism is alive and well. The Internet has allowed for more critics, but the problem is how are people going to make a living at it? How can they follow the same trajectory as Roger, where he was given the job as a young man when he really didn’t know much about film but was able over the course of 50 years to have a career and turn himself into an extraordinary film critic? The same is true of filmmaking. There are a lot of young filmmakers making movies for no money because the technology makes it possible. But can they make a living at it?

Q. Given that situation, have things gotten better or worse for documentarians since “Hoop Dreams?”

A. Better, for the most part. In the last 20 years the variety of documentaries has exploded. It’s a golden age in terms of the sheer volume and quality and creative varieties. My worry is the economics. I hope we’re not living in the movie version of the housing bubble.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.