This is the year of the documentary, from “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” to “Three Identical Strangers” and many more. This captivating, entertaining and informative filmmaking style now brings us “Far From the Tree,” a film based on Andrew Solomon’s latest New York Times best-selling book, “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.”
Growing up in an era when being gay was unacceptable in the community, Solomon found his parents weren’t able to accept him for who he was either. Being gay was not “normal.”
Working through his own understanding of love and acceptance and suffering from depression, Solomon took it upon himself to take a deeper look at what other parents go through when their children don’t fit into the accepted norms.
Interviewing more than 300 parents whose children had genetic anomalies or differences such as Down syndrome and dwarfism, Solomon’s story touches readers with a profound sense of compassion and understanding.
Solomon discussed with me the creation of his book, how our world views “differences” and the expectations of what it means to be “normal.” Solomon’s very personal story bridges the book and the movie as he shares his insights, looking in the rearview mirror of life, and his hope for humanity in our future.
Solomon feels the film and the book get “...at the basic questions of illness, identity and how people shift from one model to another.”
Tell me about finding and working with Rachel Dretzin and creating the film version of your book.
I was approached by 30 filmmakers after the book came out who wanted to make a documentary, which was very overwhelming. ... The whole scale of the operations is dizzying. I felt ill-qualified to judge, but I felt that Rachel … understood the deep meaning of the book better than anyone else I talked to. I felt that she had a real understanding that the movie had to be very different from the book and she had real ideas of how to make that difference.
Were you involved in finding the families that are a part of the film?
I talked to Rachel a lot, but Rachel found the Allnuts, who have the autistic son. I said that when they went to the Little People Convention that I heard interesting things about Joe Stramondo. Rachel then went and recruited him.
But the Reeses, whose son committed the murder, had written to me to say how helpful my book had been to them. I wrote back and said, “I’m so glad the book was helpful and how would you like to be in a movie?” ... It was a joint effort.
You candidly talk about your parents’ acceptance of you being gay as well as your own acceptance and what you did to try to change. How did writing this book and being a part of the movie make a difference in your own life?
I would say that working on the book ... I realized there was a difference between love and acceptance. I felt that my mother didn’t love me when she was having all that trouble accepting me, and after working on the book and then the film, I felt as though my mother always loved me, but she had a lot of trouble accepting me, and lots of people have trouble accepting their children. Acceptance is a process and it always takes time. All in all, my mother said all the right things before she died. I don’t think she fully meant them, but she did at least say them. (Laughs.)
As a gay man with children, how has your upbringing, writing this book and doing this film changed how you parent, if at all?
I think I try to be much more accepting than I probably would have been otherwise. I think my natural instinct is perfectionism. That runs in the family, and I try to keep it under control with my kids and to be appreciative of them for who they are and not to have a lot of set ideas of who they should be.
Identity and being around others like you is also very important as Loini, one of the “little people,” so poignantly stated. Do you think there’s a balance between being a part of inclusion and with others like you?
You’ve come up with the key word which is “balance.” You need to have both. I need to have gay friends. It’s important that I know other gay people. I’m not the only one there is, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world only of gay people. I think in the same way, people with dwarfism or Down syndrome or any of these conditions, they need to have interactions [with everyone].
What do you hope your film will accomplish?
I really would like it to address two communities. One is the community it represents. I would like it to make it easier for the parents of children with differences. I would like it to make things easier for children with differences.
I would like it to accelerate the process of acceptance and help parents get there faster. And I would like it to reach out into the larger world. We’re living at a time in which there is a terrible deficit in compassion in the highest halls of the government.
We have a government that deliberately is separating children from their parents to punish illegal immigrants. We live in a time that is morally corrupt and bankrupt. This film is about compassion. I hope it will reach out to a larger group of people and say, “All those people you’re ready to write off, they may have something to say. They may be incredibly bright. They may be incredibly interesting. Don’t throw anyone away.” That’s really the message.
Sadly, your mom passed away when you were only 27, not enough time to go through the process of acceptance. If she were here today, what would you say?
I would say that it’s a lot harder than I understood ... I feel like she gave me a moral compass. I remember when I was in second grade, there was a scholarship girl whose family lived in Spanish Harlem, Debbie Comacho, and it was her birthday, and her parents had scheduled her birthday party for the same weekend as Homecoming at my school so nobody else went to her birthday. And my mother said, “How would you feel if it was your birthday and nobody came? You’re going to Debbie Comacho’s birthday party.”
When I think back on it, it was the beginning of having a humanist understanding that everyone deserves that kind of care and attention. If I have gifts that are manifest in the work that I’ve done, many of them came from her, and I wish I could thank her and tell her that.”
You can see “Far From the Tree” on your local cable provider. Check out farfromthetreedoc.com to find this film or to request an educational screening.