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Grandma's tale evolves into coming-of-age story

| Saturday, April 2, 2005

Among the 19 dramas, comedies and documentaries in the 12th annual Pittsburgh Jewish-Israeli Film Festival, the locally made "Becoming Rachel" should hold its own -- an affectionate strawberry sundae of a movie written, directed and co-produced by Amy Guterson with Chaza Tombosky.

Guterson, a 39-year-old Squirrel Hill-based writer-director, regards her video movie "Becoming Rachel" as an ode to her grandmother, Sylvia "Shaddie" Schneider.

"My grandmother told the story we tell in the movie. She made up this fable she called 'Rachel Who Used Her Brain,'" says Guterson. "I integrated things from her life, elements of her growing up in New York."

Schneider still lives in New York, but suffers from Alzheimer's, Guterson says.

Guterson's daughter Tanya plays Anna, who visits her grandmother (Shirley Tannenbaum) and hears the story of Rachel (Jennifer Machen), an adolescent during the Depression.

Rachel has two younger siblings, a worried mama, Rose (Robin Walsh), and a papa, Herschel Levine (Rich Keitel), who seems to have tuberculosis.

The girl uses her resourcefulness to feed her family without spending their last dollar at a time when nothing is coming in.

The Who's Who ensemble of local actors includes Larry John Meyers as Mr. Connelly, who offers Rachel an after-school job, Martin Giles as a benevolent doctor and Nona Gerard as nurse Gertie.

Allan Pinsker has a dual role -- one as an intimidating mystic and the other as half of an older couple (with Barbara Rosenzweig) who counsel Rachel.

Guterson wrote the screenplay during the winter of 2003-04 and shot it on digital video from August to October, "on a mother's schedule," she says -- she had just given birth to her fourth child June 1.

"I received a little bit of money from other sources, but mainly it's us and other family members," she says.

Unlike many shoestring videos, "Becoming Rachel" has carefully composed shots, multiple angles and edits throughout scenes and a particularly impressive montage of food preparation.

Even the actors with smaller supporting roles get to participate in curtain calls at the conclusion.

Although Amy has acted in and directed videos and theater productions, this one's her baby -- a reflection of the warmth and supportiveness of family life over generations.

"I think of it as a coming of age story but with no sexuality," she said. "I think it's suitable for everyone."

There isn't much of a theatrical market for pictures that run 44 minutes, but "Becoming Rachel" should have good prospects for festivals, beginning here, maybe wending eventually onto the Sundance Channel or the Independent Film Channel.

Additional Information:


'Becoming Rachel'

What : Pittsburgh Jewish-Israeli Film Festival screenings

Director : Amy Guterson

Stars : Robin Walsh, Jennifer Machen, Rich Keitel

MPAA rating : Unrated, but G in nature

When : 11 a.m. Sunday and 3 p.m. April 10

Admission : $8, $7 for ages 65 or older; $5 for students with valid ID: $6 for groups of 12 or more

Where : SouthSide Works Cinemas

Details : (412) 992-5203 or

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