Local filmmaker focuses lens on dynamo unbowed by Alzheimers

At first glance, Lee Gorewitz seems like everyone’s favorite bubbe. A bundle of energy, she greets one and all at her care facility, patrolling the halls while chattering on about life. No more than a sentence or two in, however, one thing becomes clear: Little she says makes any sense.

Gorewitz is an Alzheimer’s patient at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville. She’s also the star of a one-hour documentary, “You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t,” which airs nationally on the PBS series “Independent Lens” beginning Thursday, March 29.

Director Scott Kirschenbaum, 31, and his cameras followed Gorewitz for two weeks in 2009 to record her life at Reutlinger’s Traditions Memory Care unit.

On one hand, the documentary takes on tragic overtones as the magnitude of Gorewitz’s mental deficit hits home. On the other hand, Gorewitz, 79, is a spitfire, and though memory and logic have faded, her blithe spirit has not.

Lee Gorewitz

“I felt we were able to capture Lee at a dynamic and unique time, when she had all her motor skills and was the most energetic member of the unit,” said the El Cerrito–based filmmaker. “She represents this empowering figure for a lot of people dealing with issues around Alzheimer’s. Lee still has this tour-de-force presence.”

She manages eloquence despite her incoherence. Talking about her birthplace, Gorewitz says, “Brooklyn? It’s right behind you.” And then there’s her quote that became the title of the film.

The documentary could not have been made without the cooperation of the Gorewitz family and Reutlinger staff. Kirschenbaum says Gorewitz’s adult children wanted the world to get to know their mother, even when debilitated by dementia.

“I met with Lee’s son and daughter pretty regularly,” he says, “to look at photos of her life and hear more about Lee. From the early stage they talked about this as an opportunity to document their mom as this still joyous, still buoyant figure.”

Just as eager was Reutlinger executive director Janice Corran, whom Kirschenbaum calls his “biggest supporter and enthusiast.”

“She saw the vision I had and what I wanted: a faithful look at life in an Alzheimer’s unit.”

Scott Kirschenbaum

Corran admits it was a bit intrusive having cameras and a crew inside the facility, but says it was well worth it.

“The residents were not disturbed,” she says. “In fact they embraced Scott. He was the son or grandson or sweet nephew. They loved having him around. He’d have lunch in the dining room and shmooze.”

She also hopes the documentary will impact how audiences understand dementia.

“It will show that people living with dementia are not their diagnosis,” Corran says. “These are people that should have all the honor and dignity possible. Scott showed very well there’s a person in there.”

This is not Kirschenbaum’s first foray into dealing with issues surrounding elder care.

Earlier in his life, he tried his hand at standup comedy, which meant more than his share of shows at nursing homes. That led to volunteering in homes.

Kirschenbaum says he learned that engaging with an older adult most likely results in what he calls “a meaningful conversation.”

“If you are sincere and forthright, they will share with you a deep and open response,” he says, “and talk to you from the heart.”

The director says he made the film in part as a kind of ethical will — an ancient Jewish concept in which one  bequeaths to loved ones values, blessings and life lessons.

“There’s a responsibility among young Jews to care about your elders,” he says, “especially nowadays with younger people not spending enough time in nursing homes as they should. The onus is on me as a filmmaker in a depressing environment to depict all the vitality that’s still there.”

“You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t,” 11 p.m. Thursday, March 29 and 5 a.m. Friday, March 30, KQED-TV, Channel 9

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.