Jay Rosenblatt and daughter Ella, 17, in 2018 from his film "How Do You Measure A Year?"
Jay Rosenblatt and daughter Ella, 17, in 2018 from his film "How Do You Measure A Year?"

‘How Do You Measure a Year?’ Oscar-nominated documentary of S.F. girl’s time-lapse childhood comes to HBO

In his latest documentary, veteran San Francisco filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt captures his daughter Ella’s entire childhood, from precocious toddler to college-bound senior — in a mere 28 minutes.

Oscar-nominated “How Do You Measure a Year?” is now streaming on Max, giving a larger audience the chance to meet Ella Rosenblatt, who sat for annual on-camera interviews on every birthday from age 2 to 18.

Her father serves as program director for the S.F.-based Jewish Film Institute and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. He hopes viewers will appreciate his family story, even though the film, which consists solely of Ella sitting on a couch, is as cinematically unadorned as it can get.

“In a way, it’s deceptively simple,” Rosenblatt said. “Anyone can do their own version of it, but I’m coming into it from a filmmaker perspective, with years of experience.”

In creating the film, Rosenblatt purposely shelved his footage for years, never looking at it until he was ready to start editing, long after Ella headed off to college. It was the filmmaking version of aging fine wine in a cellar. Once he began sifting through it all, he was delighted by what he saw.

Starting when Ella was 2, Rosenblatt filmed his daughter one day each year answering a series of mostly off-camera questions, from softballs like “What’s your favorite food?” to more thoughtful questions such as “What is power?”

Ella’s answers start off rug-rat cute. (Asked what she wants to do when she grows up, 3-year-old Ella says, “Wear makeup and eat gum.”) They slowly shift toward sophistication. Asked at age 17 to define “power,” she replies, “At my age I feel I don’t have power, but I have friends and family who listen to me and respect me, and that’s a form of power and agency in some way.”

The film’s title comes from a line in “Seasons of Love,” the showstopper hit from the Broadway musical “Rent.” Little Ella sings the tune at one point.

Though brief, “How Do You Measure a Year?” reveals the gradual blooming of a full-fledged human being. It’s a process any parent or grandparent can relate to, which is why Rosenblatt bet on Ella’s maturation as a universal story.

The blooming also includes Ella’s tween and early teen years, when she occasionally appears sullen and taciturn.

She does reference her bat mitzvah, held at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, as one of the highlights of her 13th year. At age 14, her favorite activity is “sleeping.” When asked whether she’s happy, she replies, “Not really. But I’m working on it.”

There are some testy moments in those early teen years, too, when Ella mentions that she and her father fight. By 18, Ella is poised and reflective.

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“The trick is how to make the personal universal,” the director said. “Everyone shoots home movies. So I’m always aware of that fine line. I thought at the very least [the footage] would be an archive for her. And at the very most, I could turn it into an interesting film of a girl growing up.”

Today, Ella is 22 and lives in San Francisco. Like her father, Ella was surprised by the little girl revealed in the film.

“It was definitely surreal to see it,” she said on “The Today Show” earlier this month. “Most kids may have a few home movies. But to have this meticulously documented footage year to year, it’s like my own personal time capsule.”

This isn’t the first time Rosenblatt has made a documentary that featured Ella. He bonds with his infant daughter in 2003’s “I Used to Be a Filmmaker.” And in 2008’s “Beginning Filmmaking,” he attempts to teach Ella, then in preschool, how to use a camera.

But “How Do You Measure a Year?” is the most personal of the three, he said.

Now that his daughter is a young adult, Rosenblatt has taken stock of the person she has become. He noted that the clues were always there and are present in the film.

“One of her through lines is that she has real empathy for all living things,” he said. “She became a vegan at age 13 and is still a committed vegan, and animal rights is still a big part of her moral center. She graduated Pitzer College and is in that phase of trying to figure things out. She is really proud of the film.”

She was proud enough to accompany him to the Oscars ceremony earlier this year. His film lost to “The Elephant Whisperers” in the documentary short category. But it was his second nomination in a row. He earned a nomination a year ago for “When We Were Bullies” in the same category.

“It was nice to have that level of recognition because I’ve been making films since the ’80s,” he said. “Over 30 films so far. I’m happy with how the others were recognized, too, but this is another level.”

“How Do You Measure a Year?” is streaming on Max (formerly HBO Max).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.