"We hear about the budget gaps, the deficits, and the debt. If anything there's a compassion deficit," says director Marc Levin speaking to U.S. News about his documentary Hard Times: Lost on Long Island. The film, which premieres on HBO Monday at 9:00, seeks to do just that, giving a face and voice to the millions of jobless Americans—particularly the long-term unemployed.
Levin focuses his camera on Levittown, N.Y, a Long Island white collar community outside of New York City that was the poster child of upward middle-class mobility a half century ago. The manicured lawns and modest colonial-style houses are now haunted by middle-age professionals—corporate financiers, public relations representatives, teachers, and doctors—who have lost their jobs or seen a serious cut in pay in the wake of the Great Recession.
"You look at the homes, you look at the cars, you look at the people, and you say 'This isn't them, this isn't some other, some alien, those people.' This is your friends, your family, your neighbors, this is us," says Levin, explaining why he chose Long Island to set his tale.
Throughout the film, Levin's subjects compare their current plight to the tragedies and challenges they have faced in the past. Alan, a balding, sharply dressed, jolly corporate educator laid off the summer of 2009 (Levin began filming Hard Times about a year later) opens the film joking about how he has survived being struck by lightning, weathered heart problems, escaped both World Trade Center attacks, and made it through Colin Ferguson's Long Island Rail Road shooting rampage.
"Being unemployed is something that I can deal with very easily and, you know, it could be a lot worse. It's not the end of the world," he says.
Though he maintains his smile and a jovial tone for most of the film, one somber discussion of the depression he battles shows long-term unemployment is a whole different kind of a challenge. Another character, Anne, who lost her PR job in 2008, makes the comparison more clear.
"Having cancer was easier than being unemployed," she explained.
Bills loom. Unemployment checks run out. A number of the subjects can't pay their mortgages, and losing the homes where they raised their families is a matter of when, not if. But the emotional toll eclipses the financial cost.
"The isolation and shame these people [feel]…they blame themselves, they internalize it, they're afraid to let anyone know," explains Levin. "There is a shame factor. When you have cancer, or when you survive a national tragedy, the World Trade Center attack, you have support. You have tremendous sympathy and groups that are there. That is one of the things that really surprised me, is how isolated people are."
Hard Times defies any notion that the long-term unemployed, or at least those depicted in this movie, are to blame for their circumstances.
"Let's not mischaracterize what happened here, that it is just lazy, 'good for nothings' that are out of work," says Levin. They interview, they network, they dog the voice mails of potential employers, and many of them have been turned down for jobs for being "overqualified."
Hard Times also shows that the challenges the unemployed face are not just due to a cyclical downturn, but a perhaps permanent, structural change. Not only have middle aged professionals been displaced by an increasingly automated and globalized economy (Alan eventually finds a job—but as part of it, he will be training workers in India). Young college sweethearts—a teacher who has lost her job and a chiropractor who has seen his practice slump—struggle to hold their fledgeling family together as well.
Says Levin, "Something fundamental is different and if you thought you were immune you're living in a bubble."