Life Remembered: Edwin Jahiel was 'committed to film'

Life Remembered: Edwin Jahiel was 'committed to film'

URBANA – Edwin Jahiel, after 85 years that included being a resistance fighter in World War II, a longtime University of Illinois professor and movie reviewer for The News-Gazette, died Tuesday.

Articulate, argumentative, cigarette-smoking, Frenchier than Maurice Chevalier even though he grew up in Greece, Professor Jahiel spoke at least four languages, taught French and cinema and was a habitue at film festivals all over the world.

He was honored by France with the Officier de l'Ordre des Palmes Academiques, and contributed to U.S. and international film publications. In 1971, he became the longtime director of the Unit for Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois.

According to the Internet Movie Database, one of his own sources, "He is a heavy smoker and often wears black jeans and a black shirt with white shoes." He is listed as an actor for a low-budget film made in Champaign, "Death Shot."

Always unconventional, the professor asked that there be no services, his wife of 62 years said.

Lenrose Jahiel said her husband grew up in Greece, which was occupied by Italians and Germans in the Second World War.

In Athens, he spoke French at home, Greek on the street, Spanish to relatives and English with his tutor, she said. Later, he picked up some ability in several other languages, sometimes by watching films.

He performed small but dangerous errands for the Greek resistance as a young man, she said.

Typical of the time, his missions were wrapped in secrecy.

"They told him it was better if he didn't know," she said.

Professor Jahiel talked about two of the errands, one steering a Scots soldier to sanctuary in a church, and another delivering gun parts.

His languages proved invaluable throughout his life. Richard Leskosky, the No. 2 man at the Unit for Cinema Studies, said the professor was able to negotiate with international film figures and distributors, and also served as a translator.

"The fact that he spoke so many languages meant he could schmooze more broadly, and that gave him entry to lots of festivals," Leskosky said.

Former Urbana Courier film reviewer P. Gregory Springer went to the Cannes Film Festival several of the years that the professor did.

"He was easily my most influential professor, and I always thought of him as my friend, too," Springer said.

"He brought broad knowledge, insight and a really fine intellect to film criticism. Edwin wasn't just a good film historian and intellect, he was a good writer. Writing was very important to him."

Professor Jahiel wrote film reviews for now-defunct MacGuffin Magazine and the Daily Illini before he and Leskosky came to The News-Gazette almost 30 years ago.

The professor's reviews were erudite, filled with puns and foreign words, and extensive, sometimes going on for pages on a film from Croatia or Sri Lanka.

He created a catchphrase when he complained at the newspaper after an editor shortened his Cannes Diary – "You have raped my art!" He was good-humoredly cranky about the stresses of daily newspapers.

Leskosky, a former linguistics graduate student, worked with the professor after they met in a campus film society.

Leskosky described the professor as a film enthusiast who exceeded all expectations for enthusiasm.

"I can't think of anyone more committed to film than he was," Leskosky said. "Edwin was the guy who would get in the face of administrators and insist there had to be a cinema studies program."

Another member of that film society, English Professor John Frayne, remembered him as a man who was confident in his opinions and quick with his wit.

When a speaker from New York at a campus film showing asked the crowd if Champaign-Urbana had cable television, Professor Jahiel responded, "Yes, we even have telephones," Frayne recalled.

Professor Jahiel was a history fanatic, and would give history and geography lessons to his film students, Leskosky said.

He met his wife at the University of Michigan, where she was studying music, in 1946. Three years later, they were married – a day that the professor always cherished.

The Jahiels have two children, Adam, an artist, and Jessica, who has written 10 well-received books on horses.

He came to the UI because it was "the ginger-peachy job that came through" when getting a professorship was difficult after the war, she said.

The professor was diagnosed with Alzheimer's five years ago, his wife said.

She remembered that he was always a reader.

"He's the only person I ever knew who read Sir Walter Scott with a historical atlas by his side," Lenrose Jahiel said.

But as his memory failed, he was limited to books with short, punchy anecdotes, and the enjoyment of cinema was robbed from him as well, she said.

Still, his daughter came by to see him every night, and played music for him, and when it was time for Professor Jahiel to go, it was in his own house, and in the depths of sleep.

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geccagirl wrote on December 17, 2010 at 6:12 pm

Thank you, Paul Wood, for capturing the essence of an unusual man. Edwin Jahiel was unquestionably one of my favorite professors during my undergraduate career. There are so many things I remember about the two semesters we spent together, despite the twenty-five or so years that have intervened. I think he had a soft spot for me because my name is Jessica, like his daughter's. I thought he told us he was born in Okinawa. He had an incredible ability to procure rare films out of thin air for his students, which put us light-years ahead of other students of film during that time. If it were not for him, I would have missed out on enjoying many years of the Boston French Film Festival, as he is my inspiration for watching 20-25 French films at the Museum of Fine Arts every July. This is without a doubt my favorite story about Edwin: He was very unhappy that so many of his students were putting campus jobs before his course. They weren't attending enough screenings, and some were arriving late for class. He told us, "There are only two valid excuses for being late for my class: eating a wonderful meal with a fantastic wine, or being in bed with a beautiful woman." When I asked what we should do if we were eating and drinking in bed with a beautiful woman, he replied "then you can miss my class." Those who knew Edwin will have no difficulty with imagining his voice saying these words. He may be gone, but he will never be forgotten.