Ilona, Upstairs illustrates how we re-create ourselves in response to our past.

Ilona, Upstairs is a portrait of an artist; a glimpse at a butterfly who wants no association with her life as a caterpillar.

In this mixed format documentary Ilona R. Smithkin sings, dances, orates, paints, swims, and smells the roses, but will not, under any circumstances, face the specifics of her painful past.

Melissa Hammel, the director/cinematographer and Ilona's downstairs neighbor, aspires to unearth some of Ilona's many skeletons in order to learn how one transitions from a place of great sorrow to a place of great joy. Sometimes Melissa tip-toes around issues, sometimes she asks directly. Repeatedly, however, she is met with a stiff arm.

Perhaps the more important lessons are found in Ilona's present, as she's insisted all along.


Producer/Director/CamerapersonMelissa Hammel
Cinematographer/ AdvisorAlbert Maysles
Editor • Joan Wooters-Reisin • Dina Guttmann • Mary Angelica Molina
Music Director • Eric Korte
Original ScoreLowHampton/Adair
Advisor • John Vanco • Jan Rofekamp


Ilona, Upstairs is a portrait of an older artist, crafted by a younger one. 

In 1998, when I moved into a studio in Manhattan’s West Village, I met my upstairs neighbor who quickly became a friend and a mentor. Over very small shots of coffee in tiny cups, we discussed the people and conundrums of our lives. Ilona’s vitality, candor, and inch-long eyelashes excited me, and because I had never met anyone like her, I wanted to introduce her to everyone. 

The film I set out to make would tell the story of an older artist with a miserable childhood in Nazi Europe who learned to be happy. While filming, I assumed I would learn, under Ilona’s tutelage, to be happy too.

Filming geriatric bliss was easy – Ilona was constantly swimming, singing, painting, dancing or otherwise entertaining. Coaxing her to recount her troubling past was near impossible.

I knew Ilona had led a very rich life in the company of celebrities and artists.  I knew she’d pioneered PBS’s first instructional painting shows. But I also knew Ilona was a lesbian and a Jew, which she dismissed as irrelevant. 

Ilona, Upstairs was guided into its final incarnation based on what Ilona would not reveal as much as what she would. Her portrait is a study in negative space – or as Ilona says about her own work, “the maximum with the minimum.”

September 2004, NYC.


"I think Ilona's fabulous. You've got a real winner here."
- Al Maysles, Academy Award® Nominated Filmmker, NYC.

"What a great artist... a funny, lovely character. We like that the film says as much about you as it does about Ilona."
- Jim Jarmusch and Sara Driver

"Hammel chooses quite artfully to use the same method in her
cinematic portrait of her neighbor, and the result is a triumphant
picture of an indomitable and quite funny free spirit."
- George Robinson - Special To The Jewish Week

Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, 2008

Moondance Int'l Film Festival, 2006

Provincetown Int'l Film Festival, 2005