Filmmaker Scott Kirschenbaum

This week’s film, You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t, premieres Thursday, March 29 at 10 PM (check local listings). The film, by director Scott Kirschenbaum, is a portrait of Lee Gorewitz, a resident in the Alzheimer’s ward at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville, California. What is striking is the way the film takes Lee’s experience of a fractured reality at face value, and invites viewers to see the world from her perspective. We asked Scott how he came to the subject, and how he managed to make Lee such a relatable and lovable guide into the wilderness of dementia.

What impact do you hope this film will have?
First and foremost, the chance to meet Lee Gorewitz, whom I affectionately refer to as the “Napolean Dynamite” of the Alzheimer’s community. She is truly a sweet, funny, and introspective lady, and I think audiences will be enamored of her. The scenes we have captured for this film show that elderly people — even those we think of as incapacitated — exhibit a rich variety of behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. I hope this fact encourages younger people to happily, willingly, and enthusiastically spend time with and befriend the elderly.

Given its unique style and story structure, You’re Looking At Me Like I Live Here And I Don’t will stimulate a dialogue across generations and communities about the nature of Alzheimer’s disease, and, in a larger sense, about our culture’s current narratives on illness and aging.

What led you to make this particular film?
I’ve always had a great affinity for elderly people, and an interest in exploring mental health issues in film. In college, my friend Aaron Krinsky and I made a documentary called Jumor: A Journey through Jewish Humor, about humor in Jewish nursing homes. Subsequent to that, I became interested in the idea of telling a story from the perspective of an individual with Alzheimer’s disease. Originally, I was developing this project as a narrative script, but when I met Lee I was completely blown away. She greeted me with more energy and life than most young people I know. It was pretty clear that the story that most needed to be told was Lee’s, so I put aside everything else and got to work.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
We were very fortunate to film at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living, which is run by the amazing Dr. Janice Corran, who is very hip to the film world and had experience consulting on Deborah Hoffman’s Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter. Yet we had many challenges filming within this world of disinhibited behavior, communication breakdown, and social isolation. With these subjects, there was no possibility of setting up scenes that would serve our narrative purpose, and no question I could ask that would provoke a predictable answer. We just believed all along that we would wind up with enough footage to reveal this complex world of unusual beauty, particularly in the transitory, poetic interactions between residents.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
In many nursing homes the Alzheimer’s unit is the least visited and least maintained wing. People are fearful of this disease and never set foot inside. In some units, the story would be an exposé of poor geriatric care, and in others it would be negligent families, but I don’t make those kinds of film. Reutlinger is one of the best facilities in the country, with enough skilled staff to really care for residents, an array of activities to engage them, and a lot of effort put into including families in residents’ lives. So from the beginning I think it was pretty obvious that we weren’t there to make anyone look bad. Yet still, the families who allowed our crew to film their loved ones made this film possible, and to honor that incredible trust we worked very hard to deliver a beautiful and truthful film.

Since Alzheimer’s disease affects each person differently, learning how to connect with residents took time. Prior to filming, I spent six months hanging around the Alzheimer’s unit, getting to know the residents, observing them in their activities, and, on occasion, eating meals with them. Ironically, I wanted to be a familiar face.

With Lee, I took lengthy walks in order to better understand tendencies in her daily routine and her speech patterns, which took the form of rapid-fire memory cycles amid digressive and discombobulated soliloquies.

Lastly, I benefited from the unending support of Karen Kelleher, the director of the Unit, who taught me about the inner-workings of an individual with Alzheimer’s. Since she commanded the respect of the residents and staff in the Unit, her presence and constructive input enabled me to work through the inherent challenges of making a movie in a place where no one can remember your name from one day to the next.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
It would have been great to include more of the anecdotal scenes with other residents. However, this movie is fundamentally about Lee Gorewitz — at this time in her life and in this place of residence — and, to remain faithful to that goal, we had to keep the focus on her throughout the movie.

Here’s a gem of a line that Lee said to me before we started filming: “I hear the sound in my ears and I think they don’t love me anymore.” That’s always stuck with me, both for its particular poignancy, and also for what it says about Alzheimer’s disease.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
I always get excited about the scene where Lee steals a Rice Crispies box from the caregivers’ station. It’s hilarious from the onset, as Lee, in her coy manner, cruises around with the Rice Crispies box tucked under her jacket like she’s up to something sneaky, and then brilliantly fesses up to the caregivers … but still keeps the cereal! With Alzheimer’s disease, logic kinda goes out the window, and this is one of those scenes where you can’t help but just laugh and appreciate the harmless fun Lee has with her caregivers.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Audiences have been incredibly engaged and enthusiastic. Many viewers have said that they’ve never seen a film like this before. Others have been eager to share personal stories of caring for loved ones who suffer or suffered from Alzheimer’s.

The residents have seen excerpts, but not the full movie yet. Hopefully, we’ll be able to arrange a special Sunday bagel brunch screening in the unit for them.

The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
Film is a modern language, and it’s ceaselessly fascinating to me. Independent film is particularly unique and inspiring because, almost out of necessity, it’s a way of life. It’s not like a normal job; it’s all-encompassing. When I feel that bond with and conviction for the subject matter so deeply in my core, that’s all the motivation I need to drop everything else and get to work.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Alzheimer’s disease is a universal issue that cuts across racial, gender, socioeconomic, and cultural boundaries. This film’s unconventional first-person style offers a new, intimate approach to this disease, which we hope will appeal to audiences age 5 to 105, stimulating a dialogue across generations and communities about the nature of Alzheimer’s disease, and, in a larger sense, about our culture’s current narrative on illness and aging. To me, public television offers the widest variety of programming that blends entertainment, education, and emotion, and I hope this film touches people on all those levels.

What are your three favorite films?
Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog); Gegen die Wand (Head On); and The Five Obstructions

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Find a subject matter that you are willing to live with, contemplate, and be passionate about for years. If you care enough about your topic, it will be amazingly easy and incredibly satisfying to commit yourself fully to it.