DOC NYC 2021 Women Directors: Meet Trish Adlesic – “A Tree of Life”

Trish Adlesic is an Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning producer/director. Her producing credits include “Gasland” and “Gasland Part II.” She co-directed and co-produced “I Am Evidence.” Adlesic has over 20 years of experience working in narrative filmmaking and worked on the hit TV show “Law & Order: SVU” for 14 seasons.

“A Tree of Life” started screening at the 2021 DOC NYC Film Festival on November 14. The fest runs from November 10-28.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

TA: “A Tree of Life” is a deeply personal portrait of the survivors, victims, and family members of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack and brings into sharp focus the hate-based crisis that threatens our collective safety and democracy.

When we embarked on this project we thought we were telling an American-Jewish story centered in the city of Pittsburgh, but found, in fact, that we were telling a universal story of a community coming together to rise up against hate. While “A Tree of Life” focuses on an anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue, it is but one heartbreaking story in our national “hate crisis” driven by anti-Semitic, racist, and white supremacist sentiment. As Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, now often referred to as “America’s Rabbi” following the Tree of Life attack, states, “It promotes a moral decay in humanity when you’re going to treat people as an ‘other’ and think of them as less than human.”

W&H: What drew you to this story?

TA: I was in Pittsburgh at my childhood home visiting with my elderly father on the day of the Tree of Life synagogue attack. Everyone in the city was in an overwhelmingly profound state of shock. We could not believe someone would do something so horrifying. My heart is filled with love for the families of the slain who have had to endure such terrible loss and for the survivors as they all find a path to cope with this painful reality.

This story is personal to me, not just because I know how at odds this act of hate is with Pittsburgh’s caring and diverse community, but because of my husband’s family legacy. My grandfather-in-law personally brought a few hundred European Jews to New York City during the Nazis’ rise to power. Anti-Semitic mass murder was a dark history associated with the old country, not our modern American promise. That changed for me on October 27, 2018. I wanted to support and serve my Pittsburgh neighbors and friends by creating a work that would contribute to healing from this unspeakable tragedy, and to help prevent it from ever happening again.

When we started making “A Tree of Life,” the day after the deadliest anti-Semitic attack against Jews on American soil in October 2018, it was hard to imagine how the outlook for the American promise of “liberty and justice for all” could be any more bleak. And yet, since the start of 2021, we’ve seen a deadly white supremacist attack on the U.S. Capitol, systemic efforts to disenfranchise BIPOC voters as part of a strategy to further encode racist and discriminatory policies and institutions in American life, and 711 mass shootings [as of October 31] — leaving 795 people dead and 2,760 injured, for a total of 3,555 total victims.

In my heart I knew that the only people who could tell this story were the ones who lived through it and those that were left behind to endure the never-ending pain of losing their loved ones to such an unfathomable anti-Semitic tragedy. I drew on my trauma-informed, evidence-based journalism training to create a safe space for the participants, and spent years with the survivors and the families of the victims, building a close relationship with mutual trust and respect.

At the heart of “A Tree of Life” is a deep desire to address the swelling tide of hate in the United States, a wave of hate that begins with a long history of domestic and international anti-Semitism.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

TA: I want people to think about how hate begins and ends, how subtle and overt anti-Semitism and racism, and all forms of hate, fester over time. I want people to be honest with themselves about their misconceptions of others and how we can create a lasting cultural shift in the national dialogue and confront and address preconceived notions of others and to stand in solidarity with all groups who are targeted by white supremacists and subject to all forms of hate and prejudice. We need to stand in support of everyone who is in danger of this harmful rhetoric and violent threats.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

TA: When we began filming, we were encouraged by a few distributors to make the film about the shooter and why he did this. I did not want to give a platform to hate. I knew from the start that those that lived the experience should tell the story in their own words. I wanted the participants to have agency in telling their stories; I felt strongly that we would learn the most about what happened on October 27 if we listened to the accounts of the survivors and their families.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

TA: We were funded by private donors, for the most part, who generously gave to the project. We received a grant from The Heinz Endowments, a national leading foundation that focuses on giving grants to organizations and programs in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

TA: I have worked in narrative storytelling for over 20 and after producing “Gasland” and seeing the power the documentary medium has in reaching people, I asked myself the hard question of how I wanted to spend my time. I decided to find a way to sustainably work on documentaries full time.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

TA: The best advice I received was from my father who passed away during the making of “A Tree of Life.” He said to never let anything get in the way of what you believe is right — to find a way to communicate to people what’s important by sharing a lens into the lives of others.

The worst advice I received was to not work on “Gasland” because “how could corporations and government agencies lie?”

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

TA: To know that you are working largely in a male-dominated industry and that you sometimes will have to manage double standards from both men and women. To take the time you need when you have it to sit with your decisions and to surround yourself with people you trust, who have your best interests creatively, and otherwise, in mind, and will help you find a path to do your best storytelling.

Do your homework and be as prepared as you can be. Be honest and sincere. Always have your characters’ best interest at heart.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

TA: There are so many remarkably talented women directors. It’s really hard to only name one.

I really admire Chloé Zhao’s approach to telling women’s stories in a documentary narrative way. She spends a lot of time developing her characters so we can get to know them. I especially loved that she wore sneakers to the Oscars!

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

TA: Yes, we were largely in the editing phase of the film and were able to work remotely. There were a few pick-up filming days needed and we followed strict Directors Guild of America safety guidelines.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make the doc world more inclusive?

TA: I’m hopeful because Hollywood is responding to the movements that are ongoing with all groups that have been and continue to be left out of representation. We need to invite and include everyone in the filmmaking process, to take the time to train people who haven’t been given the opportunities we’ve had. To seek out the stories of subjects in underrepresented communities and devote our resources to telling these stories. To be vigilant about who is giving us feedback and advice that doesn’t reflect our efforts to bring about change. To stand strong against the type of pressure that tells us that diversity does not sell.

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