THE DOCUMENTARY "Hard Times: Lost on Long Island"
WHEN | WHERE Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Over a six-month period in 2010, filmmaker Marc Levin follows four Long Island families as they cope with long-term unemployment. They are: Alan (corporate trainer) and Susan (retail) Fromm, of Plainview; Nick (finance, laid off after the Lehman Brothers collapse) and Regina (part-time legal secretary) Puccio, of Wantagh; Mel (finance) and Anne (public relations) Strauss of Smithtown; and David (chiropractor) and Heather (teacher) Hartstein, of Montauk. David Hartstein died in June 2011, after contracting hantavirus.
MY SAY Short, sharp, blunt and an emotional blow to the solar plexus, "Hard Times" will leave viewers feeling bereft, which is pretty much the intent. A father of three stricken with a deadly virus while preparing his home for foreclosure? That is beyond words, though the quote from Job 7:8 that ends this program does indeed try: "while your eyes are on me, I will be gone."
Those profiled here certainly aren't whiners or slackers, but desperate and afraid. They go through each day wondering what the next one will bring, other than more hardship or a step closer to the curb, where their lives will be packed away in cardboard boxes. "Hard Times" forces you to empathize with these lives. For viewers who are unemployed, it may be like looking into a mirror.
BOTTOM LINE A remarkable film that nonetheless demands a fuller ending -- if only for drained viewers. But as these families know, life doesn't work that way. It goes on, long after the final credits have rolled.
Where, and how, are they doing?
I spoke recently with some of the family members and Levin, the movie's producer. (The Puccios could not be reached.) Here are their comments:
MARC LEVIN (HBO's 2009 "Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags") -- Long Island "is where our image of the post-World War II modern suburban lifestyle and the American dream is attached." He sought out the unemployed in food banks, Catholic charities, Jewish community groups, "but once we asked them to go on camera, it was amazing how many people weren't comfortable" with that. "There's this kind of shame and blaming themselves."
ALAN FROMM -- A corporate trainer, father of two, who nearly perished at the World Trade Center on 9/11, now employed by Hauppauge-based Amneal Pharmaceuticals, a maker of generic pharmaceuticals. "It's a great job, a fantastic place to be. I was out [of work] almost two years and it's not something you recover from overnight. But we're all in a wonderful place right now and the family, thank God, is doing well." "Hard Times" implies he's training people in India, but he says, "My company is owned by an Indian family . . . it's not that we're hiring people to take jobs from the U.S. -- it's the opposite because we've grown so much here."
ANNE STRAUSS -- Out of work four years and still looking, she says, "Mel [her husband] did get a job, selling clothes in a clothing store, but it's an hourly wage. . . . We are able to hold on, basically paying the taxes on our house and eating a lot of cereal. But I'm not a quitter."
HEATHER HARTSTEIN -- Mother of three, ages 6, 4, and 2, including one with Down syndrome; her family has moved five times in the past year. "We are living off the money that was raised by my amazing community in a fundraiser given last July. That has been incredibly helpful. . . . I want people to take away from our story [and the film] the realization that when you think you've hit rock bottom, you make a conscious decision to be joyful and not get swallowed by a sense of helplessness. . . . We've made the very difficult choice of becoming joyful and celebrating Dave."