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Bikel is one of America's leading documentary filmmakers. She has produced 26 programs for the FRONTLINE series since its inception in 1983 and collectively these films have received broadcast journalism's most prestigious honors, including (More...)

Manhattan's Upper East Side -- how did you come to choose that as your locale to tell this story?

I didn't think of the Upper East Side. In fact, I didn't think of New York City at all. FRONTLINE was doing a whole series about the economy and all the big subjects were "taken" -- the meltdown, the banks, etc. I felt that I should do a program about people. Everyone agreed that it was a good idea, but the question was, what group of people? And where will I find them?

I decided not to do a program about the down-and-outs. So much of it was done on television: sad, heartbreaking stories of plants -- even whole towns -- closing down, people left with no jobs, no savings, no homes and no future.

I felt that I wanted to do something about the middle class or even the upper middle class -- the very people who usually outlive the economic storms and who do not talk very much about their finances, their losses and their problems, especially to strangers. How are they doing now?

I researched it quite a bit, but then realized that I needed a place, that I couldn't just find this person here and that person there. I needed a center where people coalesce, where people talk to each other openly.

All the months I was struggling with this, I kept going to my hairdresser, vaguely listening to what people were saying -- the stories, the commiseration. And I remember at one point thinking, "I wish I could put my camera right here" -- not really thinking it was possible or practical. Then, in a phone call, I happened to mention it to David Fanning [executive producer of FRONTLINE]. And he said, "Why don't you do it?"

And that was the genesis.

It so happened that my hairdresser's salon is on the Upper East Side -- the affluent neighborhood supposedly immune from the economic problems of the country. But was it? I thought I would check.

How tough was it getting the clients of the salon to talk about their financial struggles?

My first problem was to get Deborah, the owner of the salon, on board. It wasn't easy. She kept insisting that she is a very private person, that she will never be able to talk in front of the camera -- she'd "choke" -- and she wasn't sure how her clients would feel, etc.

We finally decided that she would talk to her clients and those who did not want to be interviewed on camera will either tell me, or change their appointment. And as for Deborah, I reassured her that if she "chokes," we will have water on hand and will stop the interview posthaste.

And that is how it happened. She talked to her clients; there were those who wanted to participate and others who didn't. In the end I had more people than I could use. In fact there were very good people whom I couldn't use in the show because of time constraints. As for Deborah -- as you see in the program, she never "choked."

Since you have been coming to the salon for 20 years, did you know the people you interviewed?

I knew some of the people whom I interviewed, but by no means all.

As a rule, I would say it is easier for me to interview people I don't know, because I don't expect the answers and I can be surprised or amused or bemused. Obviously, I knew Deborah very well and it was perhaps a little more difficult to interview her.

But on the whole, it wasn't hard. There is a special phenomenon that happens at a hair salon. All women understand it. At the salon one talks. Once you sit with your wet hair, looking at yourself in the mirror, all inhibitions disappear. At that point you are looking for comfort and commiseration and you talk about subjects which you would never discuss with your hair coiffed, sipping coffee.

It is a known fact that hairdressers know more about their clients than their close friends -- it is the "wet hair syndrome."

Did you find people drew a line -- they wouldn't want to go any further, reveal any more about their personal and financial circumstances?

I don't know if people drew the line -- probably not, remember the wet hair syndrome. I think that I drew the line somewhere. I didn't ask people to tell me how much money they had, how much exactly did they lose. I didn't ask a question that I myself would not like answered on television

Were there any surprises in the course of making this program?

Every time I spent the day with someone, I was surprised and touched. I was surprised at Barbara's situation in Florida and the situation of the people I met through her.

I was surprised at the time and energy and strength it takes just looking for a job in Rob's situation. People always surprise you when you get to know them a little.

Can you imagine doing a follow-up story in a year or so to see how some of the people are doing?

I don't think so. This is a tableau in time -- summer 2009. The situation will change; it will have to change. All I can hope for, for all our sakes, is that it changes for the better.

posted october 27, 2009

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