By Michelle Trauring
It all felt right — the project, the people, the music, the vision.
But most of all, the name.
That is what director Alison Chernick would call it — her newest documentary centered on Itzhak Perlman, which will make its world premiere on opening night of the 25th annual Hamptons International Film Festival on Thursday, October 5, at Guild Hall in East Hampton.
“It’s exciting that they’re opening the festival with a documentary, which is very rare, and a documentary on a classical musician, which is also pretty rare,” Chernick said. “But this man, he’s so much more than a musician.”
Itzhak Perlman is a teacher, a leader, a feminist, a conductor, a character with a huge heart. He is incredibly resilient, with a passion for music that allowed him to express himself despite all odds — poverty, a subsequent language barrier after emigrating from Israel, and a polio diagnosis that left him disabled since age 4.
Yet, he is widely considered to be the world’s greatest living violinist, though this is never explicitly stated in the 82-minute documentary — which Chernick says was intentional.
“The Perlman family really opened up their home and their hearts to me, and we hopefully captured it in a way that really felt honest and truthful, which is a cinéma vérité style – without narration,” she explained. “It’s really letting the scenes speak for themselves and not imposing a viewpoint on them, but creating that viewpoint through watching the scenes unravel, instead of having a talking head telling you what’s going on or how great he is as a musician. You sort of feel that on your own.”
Not to mention hear it. Over the course of a year, Perlman’s music brought Chernick and her crew of three around the world — from Shelter Island, New York, Washington, D.C., Florida and California to France and even Israel, on several occasions.
Perlman buzzes around each location on his electric scooter — with Chernick trailing not too far behind him — as he cracks jokes every chance he gets, shining a light into even the darkest of moments. His very existence as a musician is always set against the backdrop of his life at home, in a modern Jewish family, embracing his heritage at a time when the world is full of changing expectations.
“Being on the set with someone who’s, at the end of the day, always bringing it to this place of lightness juxtaposed against something deeper, it’s a wonderful quality and it made it so joyous, the whole experience,” Chernick said. “At the same time, there’s no BS with him. He takes the edge off; you never feel it’s aggressive. He does it in his way of kindness, so you’re never put off by his personality.”
The film came at the perfect time, with Perlman having recently turned 70 — “As I’m getting older, I don’t know, do you find as you’re getting older, you don’t like anybody?” Perlman muses to Alan Alda over a bottle of wine and homemade garbage soup in a hilariously charming dinner scene — and at a time in his career that he is completely unaffected by the camera, sometimes breaking down the fourth wall, but oftentimes ignoring it.
“I made a joke that if he wasn’t winning Grammys, he’d be winning Oscars,” Chernick said. “He’s such a natural and he’s so seasoned at everything he does. He’s been in the spotlight for so many years. The camera didn’t change his personality at all. He’s just him, and that’s the beauty of Itzhak. He’s just so authentically himself.”
When the pair watched the documentary together a couple months ago, it moved Perlman to tears, and left the director reminiscing on their year together.
They had come a long way, from Perlman initially hesitant to sign onto the project, to acquiescing after he felt “good chemistry” with Chernick, to sitting side by side that day, wiping his cheeks one moment, and piping up, “I didn’t get bored once!” the next, she said.
“There’s this line Itzhak says in the movie: ‘The more you have in your heart, the more you have to give.’ I believe that for the world,” Chernick said. “I think if people sort of develop themselves in all these ways that build their character, what they put back into the world will be that much more rich.
“I think he sets an example of that, and is very much a teacher,” she continued. “And I think he is this role model not just to his students, but to the younger generation.”
“Itzhak” will kick off opening night of the 25th annual Hamptons International Film Festival on Thursday, October 5, at 7 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Additional screenings will be held on Thursday, October 5, at 7:30 p.m. at East Hampton UA1 and Saturday, October 7, at 10 a.m. at Bay Street in Sag Harbor. For more information and a full schedule, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.