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Hallee Adelman – Turning the Camera on Our American Family

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

Hallee Adelman

Turning the Camera on Our American Family

By Jay S. Jacobs

Drug addiction has been ripping families apart for generations. Particularly in the modern world, where the opioid epidemic has led to destroyed lives and ravaged families.

One such family is the Caltabiano clan of Philadelphia. The new documentary Our American Family takes an intimate look at the havoc drug addiction can cause. Mother Linda and stepfather Bryan try to avoid the landmines as daughter Nicole and son Chris try to get clean after differing levels of substance abuse.

The film was co-directed by Hallee Adelman, a filmmaker and children’s literature author from Philadelphia. Her film has just debuted at the Philadelphia Film Festival. She also was one of the producers of another film at the festival, Krimes.

Right before the screening of Our American Family, we were able to speak with co-director and producer Adelman on the red carpet about the film and her work.

How did you discover this story?

I live in the same township as the family. I’m a children's book author. I was working on a teen novel, a sibling story. One sibling was struggling with addiction, and another was not. Linda [Geraghty] in my township heard about the story. She's the mother in Our American Family. [She] suggested that I speak to her children. From there, we started developing a really deep relationship.

As you go through this process, was there some hesitancy where they were concerned? How open were they? Did that change the process?

It's a good question. They were fed up with addiction being on center stage. So, they were not hesitant. They were ready to kick the door open and say, “Let's do this.” They were tired of [the] stigma. They were struggling. They had struggled for generations. They were carrying this backpack of judgment, in addition to what they were dealing with. Linda and Nicole in particular were extremely fierce. Nicole was saying, “Let's expose the nitty gritty.” The nitty gritty wasn't glamorizing addiction, it was actually showing the emotional piece of what goes on for families.

There's always that problem where people feel portrayal is endorsement or glamorization. It’s not but is that something you had to approach as a director?

Our goals had been aligned. They've been really passionate about wanting to help other families and wanting to bash stigmas. [It was important] for us to be able to communicate throughout the process. Make sure that we were honoring their mission and telling the best story we could, which was an honest story.

Was it difficult to point a camera at all the dysfunction and the problems with drugs in the family?

There were moments when it was difficult. When you care about a family, and you see them fighting. You see in the film, that there are moments that resentment is boiling over. There are struggles that have been pent up. Making those moments when you care about a family, it's hard to be there in the moment. At the same time, if we didn't capture it, we wouldn't be telling a real portrait. That's what was continuously important for the family.

There was a classic documentary series back in the 1970s called An American Family. When I heard your title, I thought of that right away. Was that something you were familiar with and thinking about when you were making this film?

Yeah. It's funny, because that was one of the first family stories captured in that type of way. So, it's really funny. I guess in a small way, the title is a nod to that. But in a bigger way, we wanted to include the word “family,” because this isn't an individual story. Over 21 million Americans are struggling with addiction, and their families are struggling alongside them. The other thing that was really important to us was the word “our,” because we found that it's easier for people to enter a story if it doesn't say mine. They can have a little bit of distance, even if it's their struggle too. [There is] that space of this family owning this is our struggle, but we welcome you in to see if we can support you and you can connect.

Do you think that they were able to connect and maybe come together a little bit more through this whole experience of making the film?

The family? Yes. That's a really good question. I think the family was able to see themselves and see that amidst everything that was hard for them, they have this really deep love for each other. They won't give up on each other. That's what in part makes them find the strength to every day make a change.

You also write children's books, and I know you've also co-produced a lot of different movies. How do you juggle the two parts of your career, the writing and the filmmaking?

That's a really good question. (laughs and mimes juggling) I think it really all comes down for me to story. Finding what is the vessel that will best communicate with a specific project and reach an audience in the most loving way. For this story, it was right to be a documentary. It was right for these families to be seen. With a children's book, it's often sometimes great for them to see characters that they can connect to. Step back from and see them brought to life on a page.

You were also one of the producers of Krimes, which was last night's film. You're from the Philadelphia area. How cool is it to have two different films in the Philly Film Festival this year?

It's super cool. First of all, we’re really grateful to the Philadelphia Film Festival. To get through a pandemic and still be able to pull off a festival. Our hats are off to the Philadelphia Film Society for being committed to want to make a difference for filmmakers, and for our community by the films that we share. So, we're so excited to be here. Krimes is a really important film about what it looks like to reenter the world and use art to heal and find power in yourself after imprisonment. It's really a delight to work on stories that will hopefully spark important conversations that are needed… for our city, but also around the world.

I don't know how much of the film was made before the pandemic and how much during the pandemic. How far were you into the process? How did the pandemic change the making of the film?

That's a great question. It's been a little over three and a half years since we started. We filmed for a year, and we were editing throughout the pandemic. One of our editors, James Carroll – he's actually here – he and I worked a lot of hours on TeamViewer. I'm also lucky to have the support of a co-director, Sean O'Grady. We just had a really great team. Luckily, the pandemic didn't stop the edit and allowed us to continue, especially because we saw what happened with opioids and overdoses. Hopefully [for] raising important questions throughout our city, this film is needed. That kept us going.

This is a story that's ongoing with the family itself. How do you find it endpoint for the film?

Yeah, stories are ongoing. Their story’s ongoing, like all of us are ongoing. I'm glad you brought that up because there is no perfect bow. Every day takes work. As far as making the decision of when we were quote/unquote “finished” filming, we were at a point where we were naturally finished. As far as being able to tell the story, being able to see really important shifts with everybody. Then you'll see… I don't want to be a spoiler… that we do in the film by making sure people realize that, that there is hope. But there's also continuous work.

You've done these two films are about people who are dealing with hardships in different ways. I know you've also done a movie about social media. How do you come up with the ideas of things that you want to handle in a film?

My background is in education. From elementary through university as a teacher, part of my life's work is always about sparking conversations that are needed for the next gen. Both of these issues, and all the films, seem important for our next generation. If we start conversations now and do good work now, hopefully, we'll have changes day by day, just like we saw with our family.

Have they seen the finished product?

Yes. That was really important to us. They saw the finished product. We shared it with support people for the family. We also had an aftercare specialist. We wanted to make sure that the family was always well respected and treated with love.

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: October 27, 2021.

Photos ©2021 Debbie Wagner. All rights reserved.

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