Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn



Starring  Joanna Merlin
Produced by the Michael Chekhov Association MICHA
Directed by Ragnar Freidank
Executive Producer Bob Balaban
“an exquisite piece of acting…”Sam Waterston

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, the film captures Jessie’s remarkable inner life, with a spare beauty and lyrical grace that resonate far beyond the limits of her world.


In 1976, Jessie Singer Sylvester is 76 years old. She lives alone and leads a simple, quiet life. Jessie’s world is small. She lives in an apartment in Brooklyn and takes daily walks to the supermarket. Her concerns are that bread has gone up 4 cents and that she has to climb over snowbanks with her cart. She polishes the furniture, listens to the radio and looks forward to the spring.

What remains in life when we look back? I have the suspicion that, ultimately, what will stay with us are not achievements and success but a certain way the light fell through the kitchen window when we were little. And when our loved ones are gone and we think of them, what we remember forever may be how they dusted the plants or the way they smiled at us.

It is these simple things this film is about.


Ragnar Freidank (Director/Screenwriter)  works as freelance editor, location sound recordist and camera person for documentary and narrative film. He most recently (2023) edited “Something Divine” for SSYY productions, directed by Thomas Essig.

Originally trained as an actor in his native Germany, he has worked in the theater, both as actor and director and taught acting in academic & professional settings in NYC, including Michael Howard Studios, Columbia University and The New School.

Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn marks his second collaboration with Joanna Merlin, cinematographer Edward Marritz and editor Bob Jorissen. They worked together on the acclaimed NEA-funded series, Master Classes in the Michael Chekhov Technique, on which he served as Co-Artistic Director with Ms. Merlin. Since Beautiful Hills, he has directed and edited the film “Eugene’s Ghosts” (with The Actors’ Ensemble) the “D&D Roadshow Movie” (for Improbable Theatre, UK) and “An Actor’s Life” , featuring Broadway legend Dick Latessa (Lincoln Library of Performing Arts Collection), among others. He was resident artist for BRIC, Brooklyn (Rockefeller Foundation), together with Julian Crouch and Mark Stewart. He is co-hosting “Behind the Glass“, a filmcast on his upcoming documentary about theater artist Phelim McDermott and composer Philip Glass.

Joanna Merlin (Jessie/Screenwriter/Producer) made her Broadway debut opposite Laurence Olivier in Becket, created the role of Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof, and has appeared extensively on the Broadway stage as well as in off-Broadway and regional productions. Her film credits include Invasion, starring Nicole Kidman, and co-starring roles in City of Angels with Dennis Franz, Class Action with Gene Hackman, Mystic Pizza with Julia Roberts, FameAll That Jazz, and The Killing Fields. She was most recently onscreen in 2008’s The Wackness, which won Best Picture at the LA Film Festival and the Audience Award at Sundance. Among her many television appearances, she co-starred in HBO’s Witness Protection and has a recurring role as Judge Lena Petrovsky on Law and Order, Special Victims Unit.

As a casting director, Ms. Merlin is the recipient of two Casting Society of America Artios Awards for her work on Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Her film credits as a casting director also include Year of the DragonBig Trouble in Little China, and Merchant Ivory’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, as well as the U.S. casting for their films Jefferson in Paris and Surviving Picasso. As casting director for Harold Prince, she cast the original Broadway productions of Sondheim’s CompanyFolliesA Little Night MusicPacific OverturesSweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along, as well as Evita and On the Twentieth Century.

Ms. Merlin is the President of the Michael Chekhov Association, a co-founder of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts (formerly the Non-Traditional Casting Project), and a former member of the Tony Awards nominating committee. She is a faculty member at the NYU Graduate Acting Program at the Tisch School of the Arts and teaches regular workshops at the American Conservatory Theatre, and the Manhattan School of Music. Her book, Auditioning: An Actor Friendly Guide, was published by Vintage and is in its eighth printing.

Bob Balaban (Executive Producer) was a multiple-Emmy nominee in 2008, including Best Director, for HBO’s Bernard and Doris, starring Ralph Fiennes and Susan Sarandon. He also received an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in HBO’s Recount. In 2001, he received a Best Picture Academy Award nomination for his production of Robert Altman’s ensemble murder mystery Gosford Park, the critically acclaimed film in which he also costarred. An accomplished stage, screen and television actor, he received a Tony nomination in 1979 for his Broadway performance in The Inspector General. Mr. Balaban’s extensive feature credits include all of Christopher Guest’s films: Waiting For GuffmanBest In ShowA Mighty Wind, and For Your ConsiderationMiami ViceAbsence of MaliceBob RobertsDeconstructing HarryThe MajesticLady in the WaterParentsClose Encounters of the Third Kind and Whose Life Is It Anyway? He made a cameo appearance in the Oscar nominated film Capote. He made his screen debut in the Academy Award winning Midnight Cowboy opposite Jon Voight. His directing credits include Showtime’s The Brass Ring and the television series Tales of the Darkside and Amazing Stories. His feature directorial debut was the black comedy Parents, followed by My Boyfriend’s Back and The Last Good Time.

Edward Marritz (Cinematographer) received an Emmy nomination for Best Cinematography for his work on HBO’s In Memoriam: 9/11 New York City. Specializing in documentary features, his credits include the Academy Award- winning film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, the 2003 Emmy Award winner for Best Science Documentary The Secret Life of the Brain, and the Columbia Peabody award recipient Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. He photographed the Academy Award-nominated Why Can’t We Be a Family Again? and is currently working on a project for the acclaimed PBS documentary series Frontline.

Bob Jorissen (Editor) has been honored with an Emmy Award and two BDA Gold Awards and has extensive documentary and independent feature credits. Recent theatrical releases include The Simian Line, starring Harry Connick, Jr., and two films he co-edited with director Heather MacDonald: Been Rich All My Life and Ballot Measure 9, which received an Audience Award at Sundance and won a Teddy at the Berlin Film Festival. He recently completed the second in a series of documentaries by director Michael Apted, Married in America, and has an impressive list of PBS credits, including Dialogue with the Dalai Lama and an acclaimed series he created with producer Robert Byrd, The Diary Series for KTCA, the PBS station in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Kazzrie Jaxen (Composer) is a prolific jazz pianist and recording artist who has performed throughout the United States and Europe, both as solo artist and with her jazz duos and trios. Her latest album is Prayers and Mad Laughter. She won the 2006 Digit Festival Award for Best Musical Work for her innovative outdoor performance, Roebling Resonance, and has recorded extensively on the New Artists and Jazz Records labels. She has created two one-woman shows, Kazzrie in Boogie and Blue and Changing Keys.


Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn 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.”

The 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.


Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival
May 2, 2010

Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival
December 2009

10th Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival
November 2009

Strasbourg International Film Festival
November 2009

La Femme Film Festival
October 2009

Woods Hole Film Festival
July 2009

CFC Worldwide Short Film Market
MARKET | Toronto
June 2009

Connecticut Film Festival
June 2009

Cannes Short Film Corner
MARKET | France
May 2009

Las Vegas international Film Festival
April 2009

World Fest Houston
April 2009

Washington, D.C. Independent Film Festival
March 2009

International Zolotoy Vityaz Film Festival in Russia
February 2009

L. A. Show Off Your Shorts Festival
February 2009

Beverly Hills Hi-Def Film Festival
December 2008 / January 2009

Connecticut Film Festival
December 2008 Tour

2nd Intl. Russia Abroad Film Festival
November 2008

Big Apple Film Festival
November 2008

Director Ragnar Freidank with “Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn” in Cannes (2009)