This Local Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Works as a Force for Good
Oscar- and Emmy-nominated film producer and director Trish Adlesic makes documentaries that are catalysts for social change, and it started practically in her own backyard.
“Growing up in Pittsburgh, with its three rivers, I was always drawn to rivers, from the Hudson to the Delaware, one of the most endangered rivers in America,” says Adlesic, pictured here at the Croton River in Westchester.
Photo by Kenneth Gabrielsen
They were living on opposite sides of the Delaware River when it all began. Josh Fox, an avant-garde theater director, filmmaker, and activist, lived on the Pennsylvania side, in a house his parents had built in Milanville. Trish Adlesic, a location manager for film and TV, lived on the New York side, in Callicoon. After 9/11, Adlesic and her husband bought and restored a 1920s farmhouse on 33 acres, and began splitting their time between Sullivan County and their New York City apartment. Suddenly the home that they bought “as a refuge” was threatened: Powerful gas companies wanted to install hydro-fracking wells in the Delaware River Valley and New York State, and her neighbors were signing gas leases that would allow toxic proprietary chemicals, often with harmful and devastating environmental impacts, to be injected into the ground.
Adlesic understood the economic opportunity for cash-strapped dairy farmers, but she was deeply troubled by the dangers to air quality and the water supply, particularly the beautiful Delaware River. Fox and Adlesic met at a community meeting about the dangers of hydro-fracking, and one year later activists brought them together. Gasland gained momentum and became a rallying cry. Released in 2010, by International WOW Company in association with HBO Documentary Films, this seminal documentary launched a social movement to ban hydraulic fracturing (which Governor Cuomo did in New York State in 2014).
While the storyteller is Fox, who travels the country examining the toll fracking takes on water supplies and human health (who can forget the footage of people setting their tap water on fire?), Adlesic left no stone unturned in helping Fox finish the film by managing the innumerable moving parts of a still-evolving story. This was in addition to her day job as location manager on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU), where she worked for 14 seasons.
Gasland was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010. Adlesic (front left) and Josh Fox (third from left) are pictured here with other nominees for Best Documentary (Feature). Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
“I was at the show 12 hours a day and working on Gasland at night in my apartment. There was no money; we were doing it with our own funds, utilizing every resource we could tap into, getting little sleep.”
The long days paid off: In 2011, Gasland won the Special Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding director. She and Fox received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary (Feature). They went on to make a sequel for HBO, Gasland Part II.
“I was always concerned about the environment and many other issues we as a society face, but Gasland took it to a new level. When I saw the tremendous impact the film had, I knew this was what I wanted to do and my career took a turn towards documentary films.”
“I was always concerned about the environment and many other issues we as a society face, but Gasland took it to a new level.”
Her new film is I Am Evidence. Released this past spring by HBO Documentary Films, it exposes the alarming number of unprocessed rape kits in cities around the U.S. She shares co-directing credit with Geeta Gandbhir and producing credit with Mariska Hargitay, who plays Lt. Olivia Benson on SVU. Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation works tirelessly advocating for legislation requiring the tracking and testing of all rape kits nationwide; in fact, the backlog issue was highlighted in a season 12 episode of the NBC drama.
Also called a sexual assault forensic exam, a rape kit is administered at a hospital, where physical evidence of the assailant is collected from the assault survivor’s body. This evidence may contain DNA clues that could lead to the rapist — and stop him before he attacks again. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of unprocessed rape kits warehoused in cities around the nation, and the women they belong to are left in limbo, their cases literally gathering dust.
“Survivors should be treated with great care when they come forward for help,” says Adlesic. “They should be believed and not blamed for what happened to them. At least, give them a fair chance for justice.”
The I Am Evidence team (from left): Nancy Abraham (executive vice president of HBO documentary and family programming), Trish Adlesic (co-director), Mariska Hargitay (producer), and Geeta Gandbhir (co-director). Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Adlesic has always been drawn to projects with social justice themes. She grew up the youngest of six children with “smart, liberal parents” in suburban Pittsburgh. “They instilled in me the importance of helping others by standing up for what’s fair and what’s right.” Trained as a classical singer, she transferred to Hunter College for its Junior Year in New York program, which included an internship. She was hoping for the Metropolitan Opera, but got VH1 instead. She majored in communications and psychology with a minor in music theory, and spent her senior year riding in the back of squad cars as research for her thesis on the true-to-life experiences of female police officers in New York City.
After college, Adlesic worked in various production capacities on films with top directors like Jim Sheridan, Michael Mann, and Sidney Lumet before committing full time to Law and Order: SVU. She and Hargitay bonded; they are close in age and had adjacent offices at the sound stages. Hargitay wanted to make a documentary about the rape kit backlog, and she asked Adlesic to be her collaborator.
“Historically, preventing violence against women has not been a priority for law enforcement. We need to change the way women are treated. Not testing rape kits is indicative of that culture.”
“I already had a good sense of Trish’s passion for and her commitment to her work—and her ability to solve pretty much any problem that came her way,” says Hargitay. “And I had seen her films, so I knew she was a force for good. But it wasn’t until I started working with her on I Am Evidence that I experienced first-hand her deep compassion, her heart — at once fierce and tender — and the depth of her drive to tell the story we knew needed telling. Her creative sensibilities played an important role in the movie’s look and feel. She is remarkable.”
I Am Evidence follows four female sexual assault survivors in different cities and their quest for justice, along with the heroic public servants who help them. The film is by turns moving, upsetting, and infuriating to watch. “Mariska and I went through a lot together in making the film. It took almost four years, and the work was emotional at times, given the subject matter. I love working with Mariska; she beams with compassion and grace. I learned a lot from her. She believed in me and gave me the freedom to help her tell the story of the rape kit backlog. Her advocacy is a lesson for all of us, and I’m inspired to do more because of it. She is a gifted artist, and I will forever be grateful.”
Adlesic is thankful to HBO for their support. “They have been a force for good in giving us their outstanding and gold-standard platform for these crucial issues.”
Adlesic believes the backlog of untested rape kits results from deeply rooted cultural attitudes toward women: “Historically, preventing violence against women has not been a priority for law enforcement. We need to change the way women are treated. Not testing rape kits is indicative of that culture. Rape kits should be tested to give a survivor the opportunity for justice and to stop perpetrators from assaulting again. We unfortunately saw many serial-rapist cases while making the film.”
I Am Evidence brought more change to Adlesic’s life: She is now developing documentaries full time. Her next project is about Prudence Farrow, Mia Farrow’s sister and the inspiration for the Beatles’ song “Dear Prudence.” Leaving a lucrative career was a risk, but one Adlesic feels is worth it: “It’s the most gratifying work I’ve done.
“I think the greater good matters more at the end of the day. I was at a book signing where a reporter asked Gloria Steinem what her greatest fear was. She replied, ‘Having not lived a life that had meaning and made a difference for people.’ I made this commitment and this choice. There are sacrifices, but if you stand by your convictions and what you believe in, good things can happen. Showing up matters.”
Trish Adlesic is the keynote speaker at Hudson Valley Magazine’s Women in Business Awards luncheon on Thursday, Dec 6. For more information go to www.hvmag.com/wib