Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn

Occasionally MICHA will present, produce or support creative projects. The award-winning film, Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn, is one such project involving numerous members of the MICHA community.

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Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn is a transcendent story of the human spirit, told through the ordinary, daily life of an elderly woman — strong, independent and unsentimental — the kind of life that goes on quietly among us, hidden from view, full of undiscovered riches. Moving effortlessly from present time to reverie, director Ragnar Freidank captures Jessie’s remarkable inner life, with a spare beauty and lyrical grace that resonate far beyond the limits of her world.

The production is a film adaptation of Ellen Cassedy’s award-winning onewoman play, based on the diary written by her great-aunt, Jessie Singer Sylvester, between 1976 and 1978 and discovered by Cassedy, tucked away in a dresser drawer after her aunt’s death. “When I discovered her amazing journal, I was mesmerized by its strong, poetic voice,” says Cassedy, a playwright and award-winning short story writer.

Filmed entirely on practical locations in Brooklyn in the fall of 2007 and completed in the spring of 2008, the film stars Broadway, film and television actress Joanna Merlin, who created the role of Jessie in the original stage production and also co-wrote and produced the film.

“I found the very ordinariness of Jessie compelling”, says Ms. Merlin, “I was inspired by her courage, her ability to take care of herself under difficult circumstances and her efforts to enrich her life.”

An accomplished international stage director, Ragnar Freidank brought a unique artistic vision to his directorial film debut. “What is a diary,” he asks, “but a conversation with our invisible selves? I translated this into the relationship between Jessie and the camera. The point of view is delicate, like an emerging friendship until, ultimately, Jessie notices our presence and begins to speak to us through the camera.”

“Ragnar dreamed in images, encouraged my imagination and gave me the freedom to discover what was unwritten,” says Ms. Merlin. “Now that I am older and suddenly find myself alone, I understand Jessie’s need to fill the silence and the empty spaces. Jessie deeply loved her sister, whom she visited every day in the hospital, and her memories of their childhood shaped the framework of the film.”

“I was very moved by Joanna’s wonderful performance in the stage production,” says Mr. Freidank. “We wanted to create a film together that could move beyond the linear plot of the story and utilize the medium of film to explore the poetic images in the language of the diary.”

Michael Chekhov Association presents Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn, starring Joanna Merlin and directed by Ragnar Freidank. The film was written by Joanna Merlin and Ragnar Freidank, based on the play by Ellen Cassedy. The director of photography was Edward Marritz, with production design by Alexis Weiss and original music by Kazzrie Jaxen. The film was edited by Bob Jorissen and executive produced by Bob Balaban.

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