Throughout history and for various reasons, many people who are not white have passed for white. But how many people have passed without knowing they were doing so?
That is precisely what the documentary Little White Lie, a deeply personal film by Lacey Schwartz, is about. It is also a film about family secrets, deception, denial and a courageous search for identity.
Lacey Schwartz grew up in a Jewish family in upstate New York, and always believed that she was white. She was told that her relatively dark skin and curly hair were the result of a certain Sicilian ancestor. As a young woman, however, she began ask deeper questions about her identity and talk about matters of race and identity.
The CEO of the production company Truth Aid, Lacey is a director/producer who has worked with a variety of production companies and networks, including MTV and BET. Little White Lie (2014) is the first film that Lacey has directed. She also executive produced the narrative film Difret (2014, and also a selection of ttff/14), which won audience awards at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. Lacey has a BA from Georgetown University and a JD from Harvard Law School.
Lacey will bet at the ttff/14 for the screenings of her film on 17 and 19 September. Ahead of the screenings, Festival blogger Aurora Herrera discussed the film with her and heard first-hand about her journey to finding out who she is, and about her need to redefine her identity.
Tell me about the title of the film. Usually a little white lie is something that doesn’t hurt anybody. However, this lie hurt many people.
The title is meant to be ironic in the sense that people can use the term little white lie to describe things that are harmless and to spare everybody pain, but in fact part of the point is that these little white lies can actually build up and affect people a lot. The lies can pile upon each other. Also, there is kind of a double entendre in the sense that it implies that I am the little white lie so there is also a racial connotation to it, like when something is white it’s considered good and when something is black it’s considered bad.
To find out that the man who raised you is not your biological father is very intense. How has making this film made a difference with respect to dealing with that?
I think that your identity is made up of a lot of things: an internal piece, how you feel about yourself; an external piece of how you feel when others look at you; and there is also where you come from and who you are surrounded by. I think, for me, part of it is knowing why I look the way I look and then knowing the people who shaped me. I think there is paternity and then understanding nature versus nurture, and whether it’s biological versus somebody being really involved in loving you. I was lucky enough to still have a loving and supportive family around me.
A big part of what the film is about is that process which is super important—that going through something, actually working through something, dealing with it head on and then moving past it. When I found out about my biological father I felt confused and relieved at the same time. I felt confused about who he was in my life and I also felt relieved to know why I looked the way I did. So I think at this point in my life I look at it as “It is what it is” and it doesn’t seem good or bad to me. It’s just who I am and what I’ve experienced.
Your mother is central to this story as it is her actions or lack thereof that effectively shape your family’s life. Was your mother OK with you making this story public?
I think that with my mother she got into a cycle of being deceptive to other people and also to herself and not being open and honest and I think that by the time I was making this film she was ready to be on the path of honesty. She has spoken about how she really welcomed the opportunity to stop being deceptive to living a life of learning to tell the truth herself. She has made peace with who she is and what she has done. It’s been abut owning her actions and not necessarily being guilty. I think more than anything, she and I have worked on our relationship and that’s the most important thing and I think at this point she feels that it’s kind of been a gift that she has been freed from this past of deception.
In the film your father seems very reticent. What is your relationship like with him, at this point?
My father may feel differently than how I interpret because he doesn’t want to talk about things as much, but part of what comes out of the film is accepting that sometimes when you’re trying to move forward you don’t necessarily have to bring everybody along with you. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a relationship with them. Just because we don’t look at things in the same way doesn’t mean that we can’t have a relationship. So we do very much have a relationship and again, it is what it is and again, that is what the whole process of the film was about. It was about the conversations but it was less about how they went and more about just having them. We don’t all have to be on the same page and I had to learn to accept that.
Do you have children of your own? How has this life event influenced what you share with your children about identity and race?
I have very young children but I want to raise them to be authentically who they are. I want them to be open and honest about it. I think that there are a lot of things in society that we need to work on but there are a lot of things in society that we need to talk about. How are we supposed to deal with these issues as a society if our own families can’t even accept them? I really look at it as families are the building blocks of society, so families have to talk about the things that society talks about. So with my children, my husband or my extended family, I want to have these open and honest conversations to help accept things better.
Tell me about the conversation that you had with your family when you decided to start filming them.
The way I was doing it, I was kind of filming my life and then just picking out what I wanted to. Eventually I sat down with my family and I told them that I wanted to do a film about my life and I know that there are things that we haven’t talked about but I’d really love for them to participate in it. I l also told them that it is very much about me so I would respect if they didn’t want to participate. They agreed to and I am really grateful for that. At that point we didn’t even have particular discussions. It was just about having the camera in the room and getting accustomed to it for better or for worse. We didn’t have conversations on cue. Even after I told them I wanted to talk about certain issues, we still let them sit there for a while.
Can you talk to me about the filming process?
Our crew was a different size at different times but just one person, James Adolphus, who is co-director of the film, did most of the filming. We shot on tape. We shot over a few years. In a documentary you have a sense of what you think might happen but the reality is that you don’t really know. You really are just filming what happens and being OK with it. For us a lot of these scenes were more about having conversations and about the questions that we wanted to ask than expecting certain answers or certain things to happen. So it was ok. I didn’t feel like I had to be wedded to a certain outcome. It was more of just seeing what happened. At the end, you have so many hours of material but you make it work.
Even though this film was about your own journey, do you feel that this film has helped other people with their own identity issues?
I think that with the film I tried to be as open and honest and authentic as I could so my experience could help other people reflect on their own experiences. I really hope that when people walk out of the film that even though the story was about me, that they are really thinking about themselves and what their little white lies are and about what things they need to deal with to move forward in their own lives. That’s my ideal. So I would like to feel that my story could motivate someone to move forward in a positive way. That’s definitely my goal. I’ve gotten a lot of amazing feedback with people saying that they have been able to do that.
Tell me about the Little White Lie Project.
As part of the film we are setting up an interactive experience where after seeing the movie, people can go online or submit a card with their own little white lie. For us little white lie equals family secret plus denial; family secret being something that everyone knows but no one talks about and denial is not only about lying to other people but also about lying to yourself. It is a very powerful thing.
How do you feel about having your film shown at the trinidad+tobago film festival? What are you looking forward to most here?
I’m really excited about having my film shown in Trinidad. I think that this film is an American story but in a lot of ways it is much more universal and global. It’s about identity and diversity and family and to bring that to a place like Trinidad and Tobago that has so much diversity and so many nuanced experiences, I’m really excited to have a conversation with that audience who I think will really get it. I’ve also heard so many great things about the country from Trinidadians living in New York. It’s such a rich culture so I’m very excited to experience that.
Little White Lie will be showing at the ttff/14 on the following dates. Lacey Schwartz will be present at both screenings to engage in a question-and-answer session with the audience.
Wed 17 Sept, 5.30pm, Little Carib Theatre, Q+A
Fri 19 Sept, 3.45pm, UWI, Q+A
[youtube qeLEgPJGIrQ 620]