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Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly

‘Hard Times’ seen from post-war suburbia

Jeremy Hobson Jul 9, 2012
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Jeremy Hobson: Last Friday, we learned a little something about the state of the economy when the Labor Department told us that the unemployment rate remains at 8.2 percent.

Tonight, HBO is going to put some faces on that number with a new documentary called “Hard Times: Lost on Long Island.”

Alan Fromm: “I know how you feel” — when people tell you that, people that aren’t unemployed and people that aren’t going through this — yeah, “I know how you feel.” No, you don’t know how I feel — you’re not out of work for a year, you’re not trying to support them. You’re working; you have a job, you don’t know how I feel.

That’s Alan Fromm, one of the unemployed Long Islanders featured in the film.

We’re joined now from Los Angeles by the film’s producer and director Marc Levin. Good morning.

Marc Levin: Good morning.

Hobson: Well let’s start with the location — that’s one of the particular things that’s unique about this particular documentary about unemployment — you set it in this very picture-perfect, 1950s American suburb.

Levin: That’s right, and that was part of the idea. I mean, Levittown was famous for being kind of the birthplace for post-World War II American suburbia — the good life. And the whole concept here was to show and put a human face on the fallout of this great recession. So I thought, Long Island, obviously this is a story that could be told in many places around this country, but I thought it made kind of perfect sense to build it around this birthplace of post-war suburbia.

Hobson: One of the women that you focus on says, “We all did what we were supposed to do, and this was the result for us.” So sort of the message of, “It’s not our fault,” which a lot of the people look at the unemployment problem and they say, “These people are not looking for work as they should be.”

Levin: You’re right, and what’s amazing is how many of the people who lost their jobs still internalize that message that it must be your fault. I have to say, the most surprising reaction we’ve gotten in some of these sneak previews of the film is people standing up in the audience and saying afterwards, “I never had the courage to what I’m going to tell you now. My sister is living in my basement,” or “My uncle is living in our attic, collecting disability and we’re living on his disability check.” And I think that’s part of the process, to be able to stand up to tell your story. That’s kind of the first step.

Hobson: Did you see any hope for the people that you spoke with?

Levin: As far as hope goes, I’m hoping that’s the next stage. First is the realization that this is something, a new paradigm has to come up in terms of the social contract. If you do the right thing, if you work hard, if you’re a responsible citizen in your community — the deal was, you know, you would have a secure and a good life. That deal seems to have fallen apart. What the new deal is, we don’t know yet.

Hobson: Marc Levin is director and the producer of the new HBO documentary, “Hard Times: Lost on Long Island.” It airs tonight. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Levin: I appreciate it. Have a good day.

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