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Hamptons Life

Oct 10, 2011 11:16 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Hard Times, Even In The Hamptons

Oct 20, 2011 11:03 AM

“Hard Times” is a story about four married couples.

At a quick glance, they lead blissful lives in suburbia on Long Island. Upon closer inspection, their day-to-day existence is anything but.

For these middle-class individuals, and the 25 million others like them, it is a tale of the American Dream gone wrong, a fallout of the Great Recession brought on by the Wall Street Crash of 2008. Shot as a documentary, “Hard Times: Lost on Long Island” is making its world premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival on Saturday, October 15. The film features a Montauk couple that has snared recent headlines—Heather Hartstein and her late husband, David.

“This is one of the hardest films we’ve made,” said director Marc Levin during a telephone interview last week. “It didn’t have a natural disaster like Katrina. Homes in Massapequa and Montauk don’t look like the Great Depression. When you go into suburban America, it still looks beautiful. Everything looks perfect. But if you go a little deeper, all of a sudden you start to see how it’s falling apart. It is more difficult to tell that story. It doesn’t have that easy headline.”

Mr. Levin, an Amagansett part-timer, and his son, director of photography Daniel Levin, found four couples in diners and financing fairs who agreed to be filmed over the course of a year beginning in the spring and summer of 2009, billed as “the summer of recovery,” Mr. Levin said.

For the Hartstein family—Dr. Hartstein, a chiropractor struggling to keep his business afloat, and Ms. Hartstein, a teacher who lost her job, it was no such thing. The young couple was in the midst of bankruptcy. Dr. Hartstein’s mother was in intensive care on a respirator, dying. They lived in fear that their third child, Shane, who was born with Down Syndrome and a metabolic disorder, would soon die as well. And the family was about to lose their house.

“When we started filming, we wondered why we were doing this and letting all of our highly personal business be publicized,” Ms. Hartstein recalled during a telephone interview last week. “But the decision Dave and I made was that we’d been through such a difficult process and if our story, in any way, helped just one young couple—because we were young ourselves—feel less embarrassed about their situation, it would be worth it.”

As the film develops, the audience watches the Hartsteins struggle with the bank to save their house by any means possible, according to co-producer Jennifer Weiss. But more important, the film shows the love the couple shared, she said.

“It’s not just the economic story, which is obviously our focus—the hard times and the shuffle with the fallout of the recession—it’s the twists and turns of life, and sometimes the tragedies you’re hit with,” Mr. Levin explained. “There’s no protection.”

News of the 35-year-old Dr. Hartstein’s death—which was caused by hantavirus, a rare disease found in rodent droppings that he contracted while cleaning out his home’s basement—this summer devastated the East End and took film crews to the funeral, which is briefly shown in the documentary’s epilogue.

The film, which will air on HBO next year, also features footage of the family during their everyday activities; from playing catch in the yard to an intimate gathering on the beach during the Fourth of July fireworks, Mr. Levin said.

“The very idea that my children will have footage from the last year-and-a-half of the family and them with their dad,” Ms. Hartstein said, and abruptly paused. “Give me a minute,” she continued.

The widow sighed, collected herself and continued. “It’s unique, to say the least. I think in the future, when they’re dealing with the loss as adolescents, being able to look back and watch how tight we all...”—another stop, and then, interrupted by short bursts of sobs—“...are, will in some way fill a void for them because it will be obvious how much they were loved by him.”

After filming wrapped, the family moved five times in three months and finally settled in a Montauk rental, Ms. Hartstein said. She is still recovering from a recent surgery to remove cancer from her cervix and just learned she won’t need chemotherapy.

“I hope when people see this film, they realize difficulty doesn’t discriminate according to education or socio-economic status,” she said. “I suppose that another wonderful thing, which is perhaps dreamy, would be that it affected people who are making legislative decisions, that they’d take a look and say, ‘Gosh, this is so real. What can we do?’ Like, for real. Immediately.”

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