CHAMPAIGN — Leading Australia director Paul Cox admitted he used to be self-obsessed. He was married to one woman, for only a year. He fathered his three children by three different women.
Then, several years ago, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was told he had only six months to live. His only hope was a liver transplant. But he had a rare blood type. And not much hope.
Then in late 2009 he received a liver, that of a younger man. Cox's extraordinary story of near death and his return to a fuller and less selfish life was told in "On Borrowed Time," an elegiac documentary made by David Bradbury, and by Cox on the Virginia Theater stage after the film was screened Friday at Roger Ebert's Film Festival.
Making just his second appearance on the Virginia stage since the 2012 Ebertfest began Wednesday evening, Ebert was met with a standing ovation. Using text-to-voice software, Ebert began a long, beautifully written tribute to Cox, a friend who has brought three of his own films to earlier Ebertfests.
Halfway through, the famed critic, who has been "a bit under the weather," according to his wife, Chaz, took a seat on stage and let her finish his written accolade.
"On Borrowed Time" — we all live on borrowed time, Cox says — interspersed scenes from some of his 22 feature films with interviews of Cox and his colleagues and friends as well as scenes from two years of his life, before and after the liver transplant in Australia.
The documentary even showed the actual operation. One of the surgeons, his mask splattered with blood, paused for a minute or two to talk to the filmmaker about Cox and his condition.
"Nobody else would have talked his way into the operation," Cox said of Bradbury. "He's such a tenacious ferret. He set out to film me lying in the butcher's shop."
A native of Holland, Cox spent the first five years of his life surrounded by the horrors of World War II. His small town, he said, lost half of its population.
"Everything disintegrated around me," he said. "That never left me. I always was around the idea of death. I'm much better now that I've died and come back. I'm now full of life."
Some evidence of that: Cox brought to the festival his 35-year-old girlfriend, a native of Bali, whom he met at a support group for organ recipients, after his surgery. She also had received a liver, hers from a younger man.
They wrote to each other for a while, then finally met for dinner. They've been together ever since, the 72-year-old director said.
Cox also talked about his work as a director. Most of his movies focused on art, love and beauty and were made on low budgets but earned back their costs, he said.
Chaz Ebert, who with festival director Nate Kohn led the post-screening discussion, asked Cox which three films he would take to a retrospective of his work.
The director said "Vincent," his 1987 bio-pic of Vincent van Gogh; "Man of Flowers" (1983), about an eccentric older man who enjoys collecting art and flowers and watching women undress; and "A Woman's Tale," in which Sheila Florance portrays an elderly woman living alone and dying of cancer. The actress actually was dying of cancer when the film was shot. She died six months after it was finished.
Cox also mentioned "Innocence" (2000), about two young lovers who marry others and reunite 40 years later for an intense affair.
"Both are very dear to me," Cox said of the latter two, "because they're very real. So there would have to be four."