Filmmakers Scott Kirschenbaum (right), Eryka Fiedler (right), Shane Boris, and Jenais Zarlin film 81-year-old Lee Gorewitz for 'You're Looking at Me Like I Live Here....'

Kirschenbaum’s ‘Looking’ Provides Alzheimer’s Patient P.O.V.

Michael Fox August 11, 2010

The title of Scott Kirschenbaum’s nearly finished documentary provokes curiosity, perhaps a chuckle, and, once you know its subject, a moment of poignant reflection. You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t centers on 81-year-old Lee Gorewitz, a resident in the Traditions Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care unit at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville. A character study with social-issue overtones, the 80-minute doc aims to convey the experience of Alzheimer’s from the patient’s point of view. “There have been countless films over the last decade about Alzheimer’s disease, and they all feature the lucid perspective of family members and doctors,” Kirschenbaum explains. “My intention with this film, the first documentary shot entirely on location in an Alzheimer’s unit and told from the perspective of someone suffering from the disease, is that hopefully Lee can teach us as a society how to spend more time with someone who has Alzheimer’s.”

As an undergrad at Yale, Kirschenbaum hung out in nursing homes to make his student doc, Jumor: A Journey Through Jewish Humor. His compassion and respect for a much older generation is apparently contagious, for he enlisted a circle of collaborators comprised almost entirely of fellow twenty-somethings for You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t.

“I love the possibility of bringing enthusiasm and energy to a place that is generally understood to be a lethargic and depressing environment.” Kirschenbaum says. “Without romanticizing the illness or an Alzheimer’s care unit, I want people to know that people can go visit their elders, and we must visit our elders. I’ve always gravitated to the opportunity to create beauty in this setting. Every time I show up, if I have a lot of aplomb, enthusiasm and zeal, the residents will respond to me.”

An outsider among the residents in the Traditions unit, Gorewitz disdains the majority of organized activities in favor of wandering around, greeting strangers and regaling them with little soliloquies about her world.

“We’re hearing the story thru the prism of her life inside the unit, and understanding the movie thru her memory cycles and speech patterns,” Kirschenbaum explains. “The point is for us to have this total immersion into the day-to-day experience of Alzheimer’s disease. Our objective is just to be honest and faithful and let her speak for herself.”

Gorewitz cannot narrate her story in the usual, linear manner, obviously, but You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t turns that “handicap” into a structural device.

“The style of the movie bears some similarity to [Christopher Nolan’s 2000 film] Memento,” Kirschenbaum relates. “But we describe it as an Alzheimer’s odyssey in that the movie goes back and forth between the flow of one day in Lee’s life in this unit, and interview questions and sequences in the privacy of her bedroom. So it has this digressive, fragmented style.”

Kirschenbaum is confident that the first five minutes of You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t will be enough to hook viewers for the next 75. “We believe that we are showing audiences there’s a poetic and earnest candor about Lee’s life,” he declares, “and they will, in fact, fall in love with her mesmerizing mind despite the discordant, but never fully crippling, rhythms of her disease.”

Several acclaimed docs about people with disabilities or illnesses, including Best Boy and Praying With Lior, won over audiences with their endearing central characters, so that part doesn’t seem like a stretch. The $64,000 question is how you get people to buy a ticket—or to watch the first five minutes of a DVD, or the PBS broadcast they recorded on their DVR—in the first place.

An Arizona native, Kirschenbaum gravitated to New York (where he worked as a personal assistant to a retired screenwriter with Alzheimer’s) and then Los Angeles. He traded Los Angeles for San Francisco in the spring of 2005 after a weekend at Big Sur in the company of some Northern California friends. He confides that shortly after his arrival he set about making You’re Looking At Me Like I Live Here And I Don’t as a narrative feature, but couldn’t put together a cast. The minute he walked into the Reutlinger Alzheimer’s facility, Gorewitz greeted him, put her arm around him and gave him a tour. In short order, he realized he had his “lead.”

“I want this film to be sort of a moral mandate to encourage more viewers—especially younger viewers—to happily, willingly and enthusiastically spend time with relatives and friends suffering from Alzheimer’s disease,” Kirschenbaum declares. “It pains me when anyone who heard about the project would say, ‘Can they remember who you are?’ Alzheimer’s is not just about the grasp of the English language. It’s about emotions and feelings. Even if Lee isn’t able to access the English language in the way that I can, she still feels and loves and has passion for life.”

You’re Looking At Me Like I Live Here And I Don’t was supported in large measure by private donations, with at least a few of those individuals moved by Kirschenbaum’s footage. “A lot of people watching a rough cut or work in progress have said this is the next Titicut Follies,” he says. “For us, that’s wonderful recognition.” Another form of recognition was his selection to the next group of SFFS FilmHouse Residents in October. The timing is ideal, with Kirschenbaum applying for outreach grants and waiting to hear from a range of fall festivals that he’s hoping will be as touched by his subject as he is.

“I honesty think that Lee has more energy than most twenty-somethings I know,” Kirschenbaum says. “I feel like Lee is as much of a spiritual seeker as anyone I know. And I feel Lee cares as much about the meaning of life as anyone I’ve ever encountered. I approach her not as someone wracked with dementia or who can’t say a coherent sentence, but a human being trying as best she can to express herself and to communicate with people, ‘I’m alive. Don’t give up on me just because I have mental illness. Celebrate me because I’m alive and I love being alive.’”

Notes From the Underground
Justine Jacob’s Ready, Set, Bag! began a one-week run this past Friday at the Central Cinemas in Seattle, followed by a two-night stand at the Pickford Film Center in Bellingham. . . . Lisa Geduldig’s Esther and Me has its S.F. bow Wednesday, August 18 at the
Victoria. For tickets and info, visit . . . Director Frazer Bradshaw and actor Jerry McDaniel will be on hand for the Sunday, August 22, screening of Everything Strange and New at the Rafael Film Center. . . .Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere will debut at the Venice and Toronto festivals. . . .Cachao: Una Mas, the 2008 portrait of the extraordinary Afro-Cuban musician produced by the DOC Film Institute at San Francisco State, opens the new season of PBS’ “American Masters” on September 20.

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