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A Tree of Life 2022


Distributed by Good Docs
Produced by Trish Adlesic and Susan Margolin
Directed by Trish Adlesic
Streaming, 81 mins

High School - General Adult
Antisemitism; Mass Shootings; Pittsburgh (Pa.)

Date Entered: 08/10/2023

Reviewed by Michael Pasqualoni, Librarian for Public Communications, Syracuse University Libraries

Robert Bowers was sentenced to death in federal district court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in the first week of August of 2023, after being found guilty of what is, as of that date, the largest deadly act of antisemitic violence in the history of the United States, occurring on October 27, 2018 at the Tree of Life Synagogue [the L'Simcha Congregation] in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Adlesic directs this HBO documentary film, created under the executive production of actor/director/producer Michael Keaton, and produced prior to that federal prosecution having begun. This work offers a series of important first-person accounts from survivors of the attack. Following a path all too familiar in the United States in an era of gun violence, viewers are introduced to how each individual experienced that mass shooting, reflections on their ties to that sacred place that was subject to attack, and their commitments to Judaism.

We learn that location was home to three separate congregations. Biographical sketches of the eleven victims are presented, and for their family members as well, together with a view of wider impacts of this violence nationally, and on the more immediate environs of Pittsburgh and the Squirrel Hill neighborhood home to the synagogue (an area of Pittsburgh rich in Jewish community life, faith and commerce, but where Jews remain a minority population).

Such documentaries can often be weaker in attempts to resolve or explain the interconnected causations together with community response to any of the similar acts of mass violence. A valuable chronicle here does range from coverage of some social media-based hate communications that fuel such fires (with roots far older than our versions of modern information and communications technologies themselves), to the rallying together of persons of different religions in the aftermath of these or similar murders. The role of the Pittsburgh area Islamic community is especially inspiring. Touching on how the tragedy ripples across national debates over gun control, and the divisive condition of U.S. Presidential politics, the documentary is more slight in some of the sequences that travel the rocky paths depicting U.S. or international far right wing, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist movements. More global causes and fall-out for the tragedy are treated, but these do not seem the heart of this film. At the core instead are these families having had that violence assault their lives, and the portrait of the faith animating their respective personal and collective constitutions. Moving instances of humbling forgiveness are shared. If how those of faith address such violence is the apparent anchor in this film, then the role of governments, at any level, comes away as seeming like anything but unwavering.

The film is not a platform attempting to explore in any in-depth academic or witnessed fashion the beliefs of those white supremacists whose claims of hyperbolic threats are justification for such violence. When we do see this, the topic of movements of hate is often conveyed through first person sharing about members of the congregations’ direct experiences of antisemitism in the United States. The killer Bowers himself is quite properly not sensationalized nor is he, nor what he represents, offered much direct screen time. How the types of faith-based responses to his crime bridge themselves into the secular criminal justice system is unclear and not a main focus. Mass shooters, even if psychologically unhinged, are likely aware that the act can tend to swamp individual victims and their loved ones in a cacophony of social and political uproar. The denial of their humanity. The denial of principles of compromise often so central too, within notions of the democratic republic. This film pushes back against those appeals to bleak denial.

Within A Tree of Life, director Adlesic provides a highly personalized view of a chapter of mass violence targeted against persons converted into an other by those intent on doing them harm. The film is also, I think, a tacit invitation for further explorations of such othering across any number of communities, and how the roots and continued growth of such mass attacks have themselves increasingly positioned civil society itself, and local, national and international government institutions, into a confining box that is also associated by some with being an other. The cult-like trends in American electoral politics of running against government surely may contribute to an unhelpful corrosion. Law enforcement and political systems are left to address this notion that a certain form of militarism gets adopted by such mass shooters and related hate movements. The health or weaknesses of the nation's primary institutions of civic life beyond faith-based groups and any number of progressive as well as odious private associations are a continuing undercurrent deserving of ongoing attention. Twisted interpretations of other forms of religiosity (spiritual and secular), which take on qualities of cult appeal, so often strive toward erasure of those representing difference, itself a troubling element of how some interpret holy books and their non-religious analogs. A Tree of Life is a testament to those humans touched by this tragedy in their determination not to be erased, in life or in death.

Published and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. Anyone can use these reviews, so long as they comply with the terms of the license.