Stories of Tree of Life shooting survivors told in documentary

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Filmmaker Trish Adlesic was in Pittsburgh to celebrate her father’s 91st birthday on October 25, 2018. Two days later, a gunman entered the nearby Tree of Life Synagogue and killed 11 people in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack. of United States history.

“It shook me to my core,” said Adlesic, who grew up 10 minutes from the synagogue. “I was heartbroken.”

The “Gasland” director was living in New York with her family, but after filming she decided to move back to Pittsburgh to “get down to business.” She would stay there for the next three years, cultivating relationships with survivors and victims’ families to make a movie, “A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting,” which is currently airing on HBO Max.

Adlesic was hesitant, however, to give the story the “true crime” treatment. She had trained in trauma and wanted to be sensitive with the subjects, who opened their homes to her and told her their stories.

“I really wanted to empower family members and survivors to tell it how they wanted to,” she said. “I was very interested in what they had to say and what we could learn from it. I really believed in weaving their voices together by asking them all the same questions. And I knew there would be a variety of responses because not everyone felt the same way about every topic we tackle in the film.

The film has taken on even greater prominence in recent months, amid growing incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States and beyond. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 2,717 incidents of harassment, vandalism or violence targeting Jews in 2021 – the highest annual total since it began tracking such incidents in 1979.

Daily Beast reviewer Nick Schager called it “a must-see documentary for Kanye West.” Ye, the rap superstar formerly known as Kanye West, has been widely condemned and lost business connections after voicing anti-Semitic stereotypes in interviews and on social media, including a tweet saying he would soon become “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE”.

“Coming up to 2023 and seeing the alarming rate of anti-Semitic tropes and statements, it’s just hard to believe,” she said. “We need to look at what is happening and why it is happening. As Rabbi Jeffrey Myers says in the film: It starts with anti-Semitism. It is the moral decadence of humanity and it extends to all groups affected by identity-based discrimination and violence. And we must intervene. We must be attentive and vigilant. The only way I felt we could approach it was by really listening to those who have been through it.

To help get the film over the finish line, Adlesic reached out to several prominent Pittsburgh natives, like Michael Keaton, to see if they might be able to help. Keaton, Mark Cuban and Billy Porter all came on board as executive producers.

She emailed Cuban on a whim and less than 10 minutes later he responded with a grant to cover editing costs.

“Many of my friends are members of Tree of Life, others lost family members in the massacre,” Cuban said. “I was hoping it would be a small way to honor them.”

“I hope this sheds some light on this country’s fight against white supremacy and perhaps sparks a dialogue that we all stand together in this fight against hate,” Keaton said in an email. “There is a rising tide in this world of division and hatred. And so if this is a battle against racism, anti-Semitism, inequality, general hatred, well, it’s not enough to fight it, we have to win it.

And Porter, she knew, had grown up near the synagogue, but she had no idea how close he was. Not only did he sing many times at Bar Mitzvahs at Tree of Life, but the Jewish Community Center was also a great help to his mother when she suffered from a degenerative disease and needed places where to walk to stay active. The organization gave him a pass to use their facilities for free.

“Trish asked me because I’m famous and I’m from Pittsburgh,” Porter said. “The fact that I’m associated for real with this, for real with people. I just happened to be one of them.

But Porter, too, feels the urgency of this story.

“It’s like we’re all under attack,” Porter said. “It is no longer acceptable not to be political. We have to engage. I think that’s what this documentary does. And it’s painful to watch, but you have to feel the pain, let it overwhelm you. We have work.”

Porter added, “It’s a reminder that love and forgiveness is the only way forward.”

Adlesic was thrilled that these three “Pittsburgh sons” supported the film and connects with audiences through HBO’s global platform.

“The response to the film is everything we could have hoped for,” Adlesic said. “I really think people understand the urgency and speak out against anti-Semitism and identity-based violence by hearing their voices and then understanding the horrific impact that this despicable type of violence has on people’s lives.”


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