In the wake of a horror like the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, in which a white supremacist walked into Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha and shot dead 11 people, the same depressingly familiar questions tend to recur: Why did this happen? How could this happen? What should be done? What should we make of it?
HBO’s A Tree of Life offers no easy answers on those fronts, and nor does it pretend to. But it does offer clarity of a different, no less crucial, sort. By focusing on intimate firsthand accounts over hard-nosed analysis or shocking new details, it brings forth the humanity of those impacted by the incident, refusing to let them be reduced to statistics or defined by tragedy.
A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting
The Bottom Line
Heartbreaking and humane.
Airdate: 9 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26 (HBO)
Director: Trish Adlesic
Screenwriters: Trish Adlesic, Eric Schuman
1 hour 21 minutes
Through interviews with survivors, family members of slain victims, and other local community representatives, director Trish Adlesic charts a rough course from the days immediately following the attack to the months and years of healing after, though it’s not always clear watching the film which bits of footage were captured when.
There are no outside experts brought in to pontificate on the events from an academic distance, and little time is spent trying to comprehend the motives or mindset of the killer, beyond a basic acknowledgment of his white-supremacist beliefs. The perspective is an inside one.
At just 87 minutes, A Tree of Life can’t hope to capture the full experience of one single person’s trauma — let alone those of the innumerable others touched by it in some way, like the local Muslim community leaders moved to raise funds for their Jewish brethren’s funeral and medical costs. But Adlesic shows a remarkable gift for locating little details that make an outsized impact by drawing out a speaker’s personality, by hinting at greater emotional or thematic depths, by sticking in the heart after drier facts have faded from memory.
In one particularly haunting anecdote, survivor Audrey Glickman fixates on the fact that she could not call 9-1-1 during the shooting because she’d left her phone on the pew when it wouldn’t fit into her pockets. “It was a poor decision, and I’ll never go to the synagogue again without pockets big enough to have my phone on me,” she explains with wrenching pragmatism. Others are more lighthearted, like Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, citing the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1979 win that invokes the city’s scrappy, communal spirit.
Each has, of course, been carefully selected from hours of filmed interviews to emphasize a certain point or encourage a specific reaction. But Adlesic and editors Eric Schuman and Lorena Luciano capture them with the natural, unhurried flow of a personal conversation. The strangers on the screen start to feel less like abstract victims in a national news story and more like our own friends and neighbors, sitting down across from us to chat or reminisce or open up with touching vulnerability.
Inevitably, some of these talks turn to politics. The shooting — which claimed victims from the New Light and Dor Hadash congregations that also worshipped in the building owned by Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha — cannot be extricated from the social and cultural forces that gave rise to it, and A Tree of Life acknowledges as much. While the filmmakers avoid showing anything too graphic, they do include upsetting language and imagery to illustrate the history of antisemitism in America, incorporating clips of a 1939 American Nazi Party rally and a modern internet jingle decrying “Jew lies” among others.
On the whole, however, A Tree of Life handles politics with a light touch. The balance can be a tricky one to find. On one hand, the film’s (or the subjects’) reluctance to take more explicit stances can seem curious, even timid. At one point, a security expert notes that groups like the Ku Klux Klan have recently felt empowered, but demurs when asked why. “We both know what the answer is, and I’m not going to answer that question,” he finally says after some hemming and hawing.
On the other hand, when A Tree of Life does attempt to get more overtly political, the results can be clumsy. A montage that aims to connect the shooting survivors’ activism to other contemporary protests supporting queer rights or Black Lives Matter or Stop Asian Hate is stirring in the moment, thanks in large part to Laura Karpman and Amelia Allen’s score. But it looks too tidy on closer examination, given that we’ve heard little from the actual survivors (some of whom describe themselves as “apolitical”) about whether they see themselves in solidarity with these other movements.
Still, these become minor quibbles in the face of A Tree of Life‘s immense powers of compassion, curiosity and patience, and its willingness to let survivors tell their own tales even when they’re messy or incomplete. Besides, there are surely plenty of others who are eager to deliver, or have already delivered, more expansive or more pointed versions of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting story — ones that work harder to expose the killer’s beliefs or slot the tragedy into the greater history of Jewish America or deploy it for arguments about gun control and hate crimes.
A Tree of Life‘s own mission lies in empathy and understanding at the ground level. Near the end of the film, survivor Joe Charny, reading from a book, offers this kernel of wisdom: “To love God truly, one must first love all humanity.” I can’t presume to know how Adlesic and her project collaborators might feel about God. But in their insistence on seeing the shooting survivors as people first, caring enough to ask about their feelings and opinions and their personal tales, A Tree of Life surely stands as an act of love toward humanity.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter