By David Rullo
Patrice O’Neill — a documentarian working on a film about the Oct. 27 shooting in Pittsburgh — knows the value of a story.
In 1995, when O’Neill heard about Billings, Montana, a town that, “stood up against hate crimes,” she decided to tell that community’s story in a half-hour film that eventually became the first in the PBS series “Not in Our Town.”
The program, O’Neill said, tells a very straightforward tale about what people did when white supremacists started organizing in their town, overturning headstones in a Jewish cemetery and leaving racist fliers on cars after a Martin Luther King, Jr. rally. The town had had enough.
The white supremacists stopped organizing.
After the documentary aired, O’Neill got a call from a group in Bloomington, Illinois, who, hearing about Black churches that were burnt in the South, wanted to act to make sure that didn’t happen in their community.
“We decided to follow them, and we’ve been doing that ever since,” O’Neill told the Chronicle. “Twenty-five years we’ve been following the story — not the story of hate, but the story of what we can do about it.”
For the last three years, O’Neill has been working on what she called the most difficult film of her entire life: “Repairing the World: Stories from the Tree of Life.”
“It’s so complex,” she said. “I think the stakes are so high. It’s been a very challenging story.”
Part of the challenge for O’Neill is that she has chosen to tell the story through the voices of more than 120 community members.
“Our stories are told by a chorus of characters, and for that chorus to sing together beautifully, that is something you have to think about every frame,” she said.
The film will touch on antisemitism, the Jewish community, Pittsburgh, the rise of hate and everything both the community and country have had to deal with since the massacre, O’Neill said, including the escalation of mass shootings and identity-based shootings.
The filmmaker was quick to note that she doesn’t view the film as her story — rather it belongs to the community.
“This is not my movie,” O’Neill stressed. “This is a film we made together. Of course, it’s going to have the perspective we have. One very specific perspective is: How do we tell a story that can help other communities understand what Pittsburgh has been through?”
Community trust, O’Neill said, is essential to this type of storytelling. To that end, she said, it is essential to give people who have just been through a community trauma time to breathe.
“If we had done it earlier, I don’t know if we’d have had the same openness,” she said. “That’s just not our practice.”
O’Neill said she’s now culling through hundreds of hours of footage.
“I think that’s the hard part,” she said. “How do you pull that down into a piece that really grasps the complexity of this time, so an audience is able to watch it and be able to take it in?”
O’Neill is still fundraising to complete the film and isn’t sure when it will air on PBS, although she’s eying an early 2022 release.
Trish Adlesic is in the final stages of her documentary about the massacre. “A Tree of Life,” co-produced by Pittsburgh natives Michael Keaton and Mark Cuban, will have its premiere on Sunday, Nov. 14, at DOC NYC, a documentary festival.
Adlesic, an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker has been working on the film since the Oct. 27 attack.
“I was at my childhood home in Pittsburgh the day of the horrific attack for my 91-year-old father’s birthday, which was Oct. 25,” she recalled.
In an email to the Chronicle, Adlesic said the documentary creates a deeply personal portrait of the survivors, victims and victims’ families. As a result, she said, it is the first film to document the survivors’ stories.
“Viewers will experience firsthand how the lives of those directly affected have radically changed and how the Pittsburgh community and the congregations set out on a path toward healing,” she said.
Like O’Neill, Adlesic was conscious of the trauma suffered by the community. It was that sensitivity, she believes, that encouraged the community to tell their stories.
“I wanted the participants to have the agency in telling their stories,” she said. “My opinion is that those that lived it should tell it.”
Eric Schuman is part of the team Adlesic assembled to tell the story of Oct. 27. He is a former congregant of Tree of Life and his brother became a bar mitzvah there. His personal connection to the congregation initially made this a challenging project.
“It was hard at the beginning,” he said. “There’s a lot of documentaries out there now and a lot have very graphic stuff. That’s why I think Trish’s approach was great because it doesn’t focus on the graphic stuff. But it was hard to hear about places and know that’s where my brother became a man.”
Adlesic said the story may have started about one Jewish community but it became much larger.
“We started out telling an American-Jewish story, then a Pittsburgh story,” she said. “Now, in its ultimate form, the film is a universal story.
David Rullo is a staff writer with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.