Far From the Tree
by director Rachel Dretzin
My copy of Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is dog-eared, highlighted, and stained with coffee. It also became something of a talisman for me in the two and half years I spent directing this film. In the summer of 2016, when I was in the dog days of editing and couldn’t settle on a workable structure for the movie, I’d pull out the book and read and reread my favorite passages. They reminded me why I wanted to tell this story.
In retrospect, the decision to adapt an 800-page work of nonfiction into a 90-minute feature documentary might have been a bit ambitious. But I’ve reached a point in my career where I know that if something really speaks to me, I have to listen. When I first cracked open the front cover of Far From the Tree in the fall of 2012, I embarked on a life-altering voyage. Solomon’s conjuring of a universe in which what we call “abnormality”—the natural diversity of the human race—is something to be celebrated rather than regretted, gave me a new lens through which to see the world, or maybe an old lens that had just been wiped clean. That’s how I knew I had to make this film.
The stories that populate the film are inherently cinematic. Families are dealt a hand they never would have chosen: a child who is autistic, has Down Syndrome, is a dwarf, or reveals himself to be a psychopath. They struggle to figure out how to love their children and—in many cases—end up doing so with valiant and often poetic grace. While there are dozens of these stories in the book, there are only five in the film, and with only one exception, they are new stories. We spent over a year looking for families that would leap off the screen, knowing we couldn’t afford one false step. Finding them was a challenge, but once we did, the film began to take shape.
Although the process of making the film brought many gifts, the greatest one was personal. I came to know people intimately who in the past I would have felt awkward or self-conscious around. My assumptions about disability and difference were overturned, and my world has expanded exponentially in the process. In our current political climate, when we’re building walls everywhere we can to separate ourselves from each other, that feels precious. I dearly hope this film serves as an antidote and a rebuke to a culture that seems to be moving us away from each other instead of closer together.