Feb 14, 2017
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Filmmaker Tells Her Own Race Story
by Don Schwartz
Lacey Schwartz as a child in her striking autobiographical doc 'Little White Lie'. photo: courtesy L. Schwartz
LACEY SCHWARTZ HAS A PROVOCATIVE
hit, a documentary entitled “
Little White Lie
” about her experience growing up in a Jewish, white, upper-middle class environment and, along the way, learning that her biological father is African-American.
This is her first film as a director. By the time it is broadcast on PBS it will have been screened at more than fifty film festivals.
As I wrote in my review of the film and shared it with Lacey, the depth of intimacy revealed in the film expanded. Indeed, it transcended the film’s specific focus and evoked in this viewer thoughts and feelings about my own upbringing.
Originally from Woodstock, New York, Schwartz graduated cum laude in 1998 from Georgetown University with a B.A. in Government and a minor in Studio Arts. Then she received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2003.
But right after law school, she went into media production, and has established a well-deserved foothold in that career. Schwartz is also an executive producer of “
”, a narrative feature.
Add to the above Schwartz is married and a mother of twins born in August of 2013.
I spoke with Schwartz (no relation) by phone at her New Jersey home.
Passover dinner at the Schwartz family, Lacey and her mother on left. photo: courtesy L. Schwartz
At what point did you find yourself drawn to working in media?
When I first got into law school I started thinking about the power of media to tell stories about specific issues. I was in law school because I cared about different issues. And I thought about how film has such a strong effect on people—in a relatively short period of time—and that using media to talk about those issues would be very effective.
I was able to use my time at law school to explore film. We had to do a third-year paper in order to graduate. I had permission to make a film instead of doing a paper. As part of that process I also got permission to take an Introduction to Non-fiction Video class. After that I began frequently making films instead of writing papers. That was when I realized I really love doing this.
At the time I was thinking about becoming an entertainment lawyer. And I was looking at my mentors and seeing how successful they were as entertainment lawyers, but a lot of them were frustrated creatives. And I realized I want to do the creative piece of it, and that it was easier to do it straight out of school, rather than pursue the legal thing, get myself established with that, only to make a change when I would be older, dealing with financial constraints.
It took some time to think about this. I took an extension on a legal offer while I processed this decision. I decided that media is what I really wanted to do, and from there I started working in production. I worked at a production company doing development mostly. I was working for two companies at the time—one a small production company called DriveThru Pictures and a larger company called @radical.media. After that I worked at another friend of mine’s production company producing content for BET.
What aspects of production were you doing with these companies?
All sorts. I was doing segment producing, line producing, and a lot of development. We were doing a lot of branded entertainment, working with brands to develop longer form content. I was doing all forms of producing. At a certain point I decided to go out on my own to work on 'Little White Lie' and just did consulting for other companies.
Lacey Schwartz and her mother in a tense moment from her film 'Little White Lie'. photo: courtesy L. Schwartz
You mentioned earlier that you were interested in law, then media because you were wanting to focus on issues. Are there any specific issues you want to mention at this time?
It really was what I was interested in at the time—not any one particular issue. At that time I was thinking I want to be a civil rights litigator, and I thought film can be a great media to tell all sorts of stories with. At that time I was in law school, and like many people, I think we get caught up in our own situations—especially as students. And I was caught up in what it was to be a law student, and thinking about legal pedagogy. So, at the time, I made a film about how law school pedagogy can be marginalizing for all different types of people.
Are you still working for a production company right now?
I’m not. I do consulting; and I have an organization,
, which is the organization that put out both “Difret” and “Little White Lie” and which is my main focus. But I do consulting work for a variety of organizations—in particular
which is an organization that works on ethnic and cultural diversity in the Jewish community.
Tell me about Truth Aid?
The impetus for Truth Aid was my business partner Mehret Mandefro had been involved in a film called “All of Us”. She’s a medical doctor by training, and a filmmaker was following her work about Black women and HIV, and looking at the social problems behind the epidemic. We rebranded the organization—it was originally called Truth Aids, and at the time was focusing on outreach coming out of that film. We expanded the organization to Truth Aid, dropping the ‘s’. We made the mission broader, and focused on what we look at now as social barriers to well-being.
Both 'Little White Lie' and 'Difret' are Truth Aid projects. They both ended up coming out in 2014.
I saw 'Little White Lie', of course, but haven’t seen 'Difret'. Would you tell me about that film?
It’s a fictional film, based on a true story. It follows two courageous women who fight against the system in Ethiopia. Mehret met the director, and that’s how we got involved in it. It was shot in the fall of 2012, released in 2013, and then premiered at Sundance in 2014. We won the World Cinema Audience Award, and we moved on to Berlin with it where we won the audience award there as well. It’s been touring around the world, in festivals. It’s going to be in theaters world-wide in the spring.
You became interested in media in law school. When did the idea come to you to tell your story?
Shortly after law school I started thinking about it. At the time I was living in what I considered a ‘racial closet.’ I was trying to figure out how to integrate my own identity of being Black and Jewish. I became fascinated by Jewish diversity, interested in how other people were navigating being both Black and Jewish. I thought to myself that I want to make a film about it, and began exploring that.
I was kind of stuck because I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a great topic, but what’s the story? What’s going to make it an interesting film?’ As I started exploring it more and more, I realized that what was really driving me to do the film was my own struggle to integrate my dual identity, and that really wasn’t just about learning about other people, it was really about my family’s secrets that were completely and totally tied to my own issue of integrating my identities.
I thought that before I made a film about some broader, grandiose theme, it would be more effective to push myself, to do the work I needed to do to integrate my own identity which was about uncovering my own family’s secrets. And that by filming that, that could be something that could be used by other people. It was like I had to ‘walk the walk before I could talk the talk’. I look at what I’m doing with this film as really, in large part, modeling process. And that is what I set out to do.
Anything else you want to say about the production—epiphanies, dramatic events?
The biggest epiphany I had was related to the editing. It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. When I set out to make the film I thought, ‘Oh, I just do the work of shooting it, telling the story, then I can just hand over the footage to the editor and say, “Here, I did my part, you do your part, like, turn it into a film.”’ And there was so much more, so much deeper that I had to go after I was done shooting. And I wasn’t really, truly expecting that. This was the most kind-of shocking to me.
Lacey Schwartz director, writer, producer AND subject of 'Little White Lie' a cathartic exploration of the American racial experience. photo: courtesy L. Schwartz
When you say, ‘so much deeper that I had to go,’ what do you mean?
There’s so many layers to a film like this. The narration, how you piece together and tell the story. There was so much writing involved, thinking through how to put together the footage in a way to help people understand the story we were telling and what my experience had been, that would help them to access it.
How has the release been?
The response to the film has been really amazing. By the time we finished it, we’d worked on it for a long time, and felt it had come together in a way we were happy with. But as much as you can be proud of a film, happy with it, it’s really hard to fully anticipate how audiences are going to react to it. And for us, the response has been wonderful.
People have just really gotten it. While I was making this film, the whole time I was thinking that, yes, obviously, I’m revealing a lot about myself, but when people watch this film, what I wanted was for them to come out of it thinking less about me, what my family went through, and more about what they went through, and what they have to do in their lives.
I found that people really connected. But one of the challenges we had was we wanted to reach all kinds of niche audiences—not just show to Jewish festivals, or Black festivals, we wanted to make sure we reached all sorts of audiences, to show how truly broad the audience for this film is. And we’ve been able to do that.
People ask all the time, ‘Is the response different in Jewish audiences, or Black audiences? Honestly, it’s really more personal to the audience than anything else.
Yes! As I said in my review, when I watched the film, every few minutes something would happen that would trigger thoughts and memories from my family. I’d stop the film, ponder what I just learned, reverse, and replay to make sure I was getting everything I could from the film. The film went beyond the issue of racial identity into the miasma of family dynamics. So, yes, I’ll vouch for that intention and success.
How has it affected you, to have your first project as director be so instantly successful?
You know, you put so much work into something, and it’s just amazing. It’s great in terms of thinking about making other films, thinking about other stories that I want to tell. And with both 'Difret' and 'Little White Lie' there’s really active outreach and impact campaigns around both projects. For me, the films are a tool to make change and create impact, and so it’s not just about creating the media, it’s also about then creating the tools that can be used around the media. So, to help other people—in the case of 'Little White Lie' to help other people share their stories, give them a space to have productive conversations. So, yes, it’s been really wonderful.
What’s on the horizon? Do you have specific projects in mind?
We are working on a documentary project with an amazing director, Yoruba Rich where we are optioning a book called, “How It Feels to Be Free” which is about female African American performers during the civil rights movement and how there were activists both on and off the stage and screen. Mehret and I are producing it, and Yoruba is directing it.
Lacey, you have a family, a career as a producer/director, is there anything else that I’m missing?
The outreach part of it, how we do the work, we really want to connect with communities. The executive producer of 'Little White Lie' is Be’chol Lashon, the organization I was telling you about that works on ethnic and racial cultural diversity. So, the last piece of it is—for Mehret and I—it’s creating media, using the media, and doing strategic consulting around the issues that the media connects to.
Suppose all of a sudden you were granted a very large amount of capital to produce projects. What do you have in mind?
(laughs) I think Mehret and I would sit down and write a script that we would co-write and co-direct together. We would focus on the different issues that women face and how they balance family, life, and work.
I look forward to seeing it!
Don Schwartz is an actor, writer and blogger on all things documentary, and can be seen
Posted on Jan 17, 2015 - 04:40 PM