Thank you all for joining us on 12/6/18 for the film screening of Far From The Tree followed by the terrific Q&A with Director Rachel Dretzin.
Learn more about the film, director, story's author, and principals of the film in this illuminating interview conducted and written by Abby Lieberman.
Rachel Dretzin Profile
Written By: Abby Lieberman
When Rachel Dretzin read journalist and author, Andrew Solomon’s, 700-page book, Far from the Tree, she knew she had to make it a film. More than 20 other filmmakers had approached Solomon with the same idea.
“I felt then and I feel now,” Solomon, who had spent over a decade writing the book, said, “that Rachel had the deepest understanding of what the book was really about. The message was not to judge and presume about people or ways of life that are different, and to recognize the resilience of family love.”
In 1983, 16-year-old Rachel Dretzin, whose mother was a casting director, had always believed she would act. She was cast in Baby It’s You, a drama about young romance set in the 1960s.
Nearly 35 years later, in her Downtown Brooklyn office, she recalled a life before her career had really begun.
After that movie was over, “I kind of lost my sizzle for going into the acting profession,” she said.
So, Dretzin turned to another love: history. In the summer entering her senior year of high school, she interned on a documentary film about the McCarthy Era, a fascinating opportunity to meet the real players she had read about in her history books.
“It felt instantaneously like this is what I want to do with my life, and so I decided, at the age of 17, I wanted to make documentaries and never looked back,” she said.
Dretzin took her passion to Yale where she majored in history, but immersed herself in film studies, seeking a career that married the two. On Monday nights, she watched films in Michael Roemer’s film criticism class. Roemer, a German Jew who had escaped the Nazis on the kinder transports, had directed Nothing But a Man. It was a 1964 cult classic, about a different kind of discrimination, that of an African-American worker in 1960s Birmingham, Alabama. In Roemer’s work, Dretzin saw how personal experience could inspire. It was something she would later welcome in her own career, where, as a female filmmaker and mother, she vowed not to shy away from the emotion she felt for stories, but rather, embrace it.
Dretzin took the classes that Roemer taught over and over again. In them, she was introduced to some of the earliest forms of documentary in Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, and, in Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens. It was there that she discovered what she loved most about filmmaking and what kinds of stories drew her in.
“It’s really interesting,” Dretzin said in regards to her time at Yale. “I actually really loved experiential, vérité films, even though my career kind of took a different turn.”
Director, Rachel Dretzin (left) at Far From The Tree Q&A on 12/6
Out of college, she was hired as a production assistant and quickly promoted to an associate producer on The 11th Hour, WNET’s public-affairs series that combined rich discussion with a short documentary piece each night.
“I still remember the first time I was thrown out into the field with a camera person and nobody over me,” she said. “I did not sleep one wink the night before. I had absolutely no idea how to cover a scene. I had to learn on my feet.”
In 1990, Dretzin found herself in the office of Israeli filmmaker and PBS Frontline producer, Ofra Bikel.
“I asked her [Bikel], ‘Well you’re interviewing for a documentary. What is it about?’ She said, ‘I was going to do something on Germany, but I could do something else.’”
Dretzin told Bikel about a story she was producing for The 11th Hour, a daycare center worker who had been put in prison for child sexual abuse based entirely on the testimony of very young children. She had gotten really excited about it, she told Bikel, and knew there were many similar cases around the country.
“That sounds really interesting,” Dretzin recalls Bikel saying. “Would you work on it with me if I did a film on that?”
It was the beginning of Innocence Lost, a three-part series that would become one of the most celebrated and important Frontline films to date. As an associate producer, Dretzin went with Bikel to Edenton, North Carolina, where seven workers from the same daycare center had been accused of committing horrifying child abuse and were in prison awaiting trial.
Dretzin immersed herself in the small and seemingly tranquil southern town, where everybody knew one another. She got to know the parents of the children who had made these disturbing accusations and developed relationships with the defendants and their families. She and Bikel became convinced that none of them were guilty.
“It’s actually what cemented my love for documentary filmmaking,” she said, “It was partly that the story was so extraordinary and we were so deep in with these people, on both sides.”
Dretzin followed the story, from the seven workers awaiting trial, to the moment some were convicted. Still in search of the truth, she sought out jurors who had been on the case.
“I was driving out in these cornfields knocking on doors. There were no phones,” Dretzin remembered. “The first juror that I spoke to said ‘oh yeah I convicted him, but I knew he wasn’t guilty.’ And it went from there.”
After the third part of the series, Innocence Lost: The Plea, aired, the convicted daycare workers were offered deals and released from jail. The film, itself, had become evidence and Dretzin would later win a duPont-Columbia Award for it. Looking out her office window to Flatbush Avenue, she remembered, vividly, the impact the story had on her career.
“It was a very seminal experience for me as a filmmaker. It showed me, A., the power of what we do, which is never to be underestimated, and B., the value of putting in the time, developing these relationships, and building trust.”
Of the many people who followed Innocence Lost closely, one of them was producer and director, Barak Goodman. A filmmaker himself, Goodman was inspired by the films and by Dretzin.
“I followed and loved Rachel’s work,” said Goodman. “I knew who she was and decided to ask her on a date.”
After first meeting in 1995, the two would eventually marry and have their first child shortly after. At the time, Dretzin was working on a film for Frontline about a syphilis outbreak amongst a group of Atlanta teenagers. With their son less than one year old, she and Goodman decided to travel and work on the film together, the first experience of juggling family and filmmaking.
“Our son actually walked for the first time down there,” Goodman recalled.
The couple spent over six months in Georgia, co-producing what would become a Peabody-Award-winning film, The Lost Children of Rockdale County.
“I have always been so inspired by her,” Goodman said of Dretzin’s work. “Rachel has this ability to connect with people on a level that’s difficult to reach.”
While working together on Failure to Protect, another duPont-Award-winning Frontline series, which offered a harrowing, behind-the-scenes look at the child welfare system in Maine, Goodman remembered making a decision that he saw as being crucial to the film.
“I love interviewing,” he said, “but we agreed that Rachel would do the interviews because she had this way of making people feel comfortable in immensely difficult situations.”
Dretzin would continue to produce Frontline films for over two decades, winning Peabody, duPont, and Emmy awards for her work. She and Goodman had two more children and Dretzin recalled, at the time, being the only female filmmaker at Frontline with more than one child. Working there allowed her to keep a steady income, without scrambling to raise money.
“It determined the kind of choices I made,” she said “Part of me feels like I probably was meant to be an indie filmmaker, who made theatrical feature docs, but that would have been an unsustainable way for us.”
After producing more films together, the couple formed their own production company that would eventually be called Ark Media. Initially, they worked out of the ground floor of their brownstone and were able to independently take on multiple stories at a time. They moved to a larger office space in Downtown Brooklyn and, in 2012, were offered a new series called, Finding Your Roots, in which Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. examines history through ancestry.
“I thought, we’re kind of building something here,” said Dretzin. “This is a chance for me to do something different.”
It was around the same time that Dretzin read Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree. She described her emotional reaction to the book, a window into Solomon’s own struggles to be accepted by his parents as a gay man, through the stories of other families whose children differed from what they had expected.
“I was just totally blown away by the book. Far From the Tree was the first time that I actually said, I want to make this film and I’m going to go out and raise the money and find a home for it, which is a really different sensibility for me.”
After initial email correspondence with Solomon, a fellow Yale graduate, she and Goodman took the award-winning author to dinner. Dretzin had prepared a lengthy proposal.
“It was a difficult choice process, but Rachel was very convincing and very impassioned,” said Solomon. “I thought that she had the insight to figure out a way to convey the message of the book—one of acceptance, validation of difference, and the power of parental love -- in a very different medium.”
Early on, they agreed to find families that were not in the book, because some of those stories had been resolved. Dretzin found unique storylines and immersed herself in their worlds, for example, at the Little People of America National Conference. It was there that she met Leah Smith, the organization’s director of public affairs, who would become one of the main characters in the film.
Trust in Rachel came easily and early in the process, Smith said. “I would actually call her a really close family friend. We set boundaries and she listened to them, but was supportive too.”
Ultimately, Dretzin focused on Leah and her husband, Joe, along with four other families, each with parents who differed from their child in some way. She wove their diverse stories together with Solomon’s account of his own struggle for acceptance. Though parts of his story were difficult to tell, Solomon knew the importance of the connective role he had to play for the film and recalled how he was emboldened to speak unreservedly about those trying moments in his life.
“I think the intimacy that Rachel was able to achieve kind of balanced out the challenges of being in a room full of big cameras,” he said. “She doesn’t come in with judgments ahead of time. She puts people at ease and is genuinely interested in all the stories that she’s covering.”
It’s a feeling that Leah Smith and her husband also shared when working with Dretzin.
“Rachel was so good at asking the questions, allowing there to be space to open up and creating an intimate environment. It’s just a conversation,” Smith said.
It was both her time in the field shooting and Dretzin’s ability to connect that built a level of trust with each family featured in the film, enabling her to reveal their most private and telling moments. She edited for over a year, experimenting with weaving the stories together in different ways.
“There’s no magic and no formula to this. It’s just sweat and trying a lot of things and trusting your gut.”
The result is both a representation of Solomon’s book, and, for Dretzin, the realization of a dream that began long before her 22-year career at PBS Frontline and before starting a family of her own. It epitomizes what she recognized all those years ago, sitting in Michael Roemer’s film criticism class: the value of building relationships, and the power that her own emotion and passion bring to the stories she tells.
“Films are really different when they’re made by women,” Dretzin said. “When I think about Far From the Tree, I think it’s really important not to run away from the uniqueness of the way we see things and from being emotional about our films.”
Far From the Tree is currently playing in select theaters nationwide, during what Dretzin considers a critical time for female filmmakers.