How did a nice Jewish boy from Squirrel Hill end up in an East Harlem drug rehabilitation center?
Fortunately, for Eddie Rosenstein, it wasn’t for treatment, but it was to create the award-winning documentary, “The Gospel According to Mr. Allen.”
JFilm, the Pittsburgh Jewish Film Forum, presented a special screening of this and three of Rosenstein’s other documentaries Saturday evening at the Melwood Screening Room in Oakland. Rosenstein was on hand to answer audience questions.
Rosenstein, the founder of Eyepop Productions, a Brooklyn-based production company, was in town this past weekend to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday.
A sold-out crowd enjoyed a mixture of funny, heartwarming, and serious documentaries, including “Boatlift,” a little known piece of recent history, which Rosenstein produced in commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. In “Boatlift,” narrated by Tom Hanks, Rosenstein recounts the touching story of how private boat owners rushed to sail New Yorkers away from the horrific scenes playing out in Manhattan. That day, the audience learned, was the largest sea evacuation in history.
The affable Rosenstein joked about the mixed reactions he often receives when people find out that he is not just a filmmaker, but a “documentary” filmmaker.
“We are the spinach of the film industry,” he said.
But he more than proved to the audience that his documentaries are anything but boring, though perhaps they are as good for you as spinach.
Perhaps the most commented-on film of the evening was “The Gospel According to Mr. Allen.” Rosenstein spent months visiting the Addicts Rehabilitation Center, a spiritually-based treatment center in East Harlem, before picking up his camera. The result was a raw, gritty and wholly fascinating glimpse into a slice of life that is unknown to most people who have never had to deal with addiction.
More than a dispassionate observer, Rosenstein told the audience he sometimes creates situations in the documentaries. For example, in “The Gospel According to Mr. Allen,” he decided to invite one of the subjects’ families to a gospel choir performance, thinking that would generate some action worthy of the camera. Unfortunately, the woman didn’t show up, disappointing her mother and children, and it was just one of those situations that Rosenstein had to incorporate into film, despite the unintended consequence.
When questioned about that, the director quipped, “I get my ability to tell the truth from my father; I get the ability to embellish from my mother.”
But the documentary enabled that same woman to help heal a broken relationship with her mother. “It’s why I do what I do,” Rosenstein said.
A 1981 graduate of Taylor Allderdice High School, Rosenstein went on to major in film studies at Penn State. He lives with his wife and two sons in New York. One of his sons, who was at the screenings, inspired the hilarious short film, “Miss Shade is Missing,” a chaotic day in the life of his third-grade class in Brooklyn when a substitute teacher was “in charge” that day, resulting in security being called to the room. Rosenstein easily captured the forthrightness of children when he interviewed the entire class about that fateful day. His son’s comment in the film — “I never thought a third-grade class would be this immature” — garnered a huge laugh from the audience.
The other film, “Two Weddings,” tenderly portrayed a couple celebrating the wedding of their grandson as they recounted their own miracle of survival and the circle of life, having found each other again after being in separate concentration camps.
Rosenstein and his films have won countless awards, a short list of which includes several Tellies, “Best Documentary” at the Big Apple International Film Festival, several Cine Golden Eagles, as well as a couple Emmy nominations. In addition to documentaries, he has worked on reality TV and kids’ programming. His clients include AMC, A&E, HBO, Nickelodeon and PBS Kids.
Rosenstein is capable of injecting humor into the most serious subject matter. Even the documentary about addiction garnered a few chuckles, which pleases the director. He prefers to make films that are “ … supposed to be entertaining and enjoyable as well as enlightening and informative. There are messages and there are points to be made but I’d rather make the point and bury the point in a story than bury the story in a point.”
Despite his diet of “spinach” films, Rosenstein wouldn’t have it any other way. “The real world is more surprising and interesting than fiction in many cases,” he said. “The imagination is more limited than what happens in real life.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)