As the commercial mainstream movie market sinks ever further into escapism and fantasy, there are fewer venues for the contemplative soul who prefers a film that embraces reality. So when the 15th annual Woodstock Film Festival is back in town (through Sunday, October 19), screening more than 125 thought-provoking films by independent filmmakers at venues in Kingston, Rhinebeck, Rosendale, Woodstock and Saugerties, it’s cause for celebration.
Woodstock native Lacey Schwartz, Harvard Law School grad-turned-filmmaker, is one-half of Truth Aid, a nonprofit media production organization founded in 2008 with writer and producer Mehret Mandefro in order to produce films with meaningful social content that will inspire people to take action through the power of storytelling. “I first started thinking about the power of media when I went to law school,” Schwartz says. “When we had to write a third-year paper to graduate, I petitioned the school to make a film to fulfill that requirement instead. I felt like it was a really effective way to get people engaged in thinking about and talking about important issues. Using film, you can be more effective than writing about or just working around those issues; you can very quickly influence or create impact in a relatively short period of time.”
Schwartz had considered becoming an entertainment lawyer, she says; but once she started making films, that focus changed. Schwartz was exploring issues of Jewish diversity – specifically, the experiences of black Jews in America – when she realized that before she could speak to the larger societal picture of people going through that kind of dual identity, she had to start with her own story. “To look at how individuals have to create their own identity when I myself was struggling with that…before I could talk the talk on those issues that I felt were important, I had to walk the walk. Part of that was dealing with my family’s secret.”
That family secret is the topic of Schwartz’s film, Little White Lie, presented by the Woodstock Film Festival in two screenings, each followed by a question-and-answer session with Schwartz. The film will be shown at the Woodstock Playhouse in Woodstock on Friday, October 17 at 7:45 p.m. and in Saugerties at the Orpheum Theater on Saturday, October 18 at 12 noon. The running time is 65 minutes. Tickets cost $10.
Through home videos, archival footage, interviews and narrative about experiences from her childhood, Schwartz tells the riveting true story of how she grew up believing that she was white, despite her physical appearance that suggested the truth: that her biological father was actually a black man with whom her mother had been involved. “I come from a long line of New York Jews,” she says in the film, speaking over a montage of home videos depicting family members at various celebrations. “I grew up in a world of synagogue, Hebrew school, bar mitzvahs. So it never occurred to me that I was ‘passing.’ I wasn’t pretending to be something I wasn’t. I actually grew up believing I was white.”
She was aware that she looked different from her family, and people questioned her whiteness: but she believed her parents’ explanation, her appearance attributed to her father’s dark-skinned Sicilian grandfather. “If you look too closely at it, it didn’t make any sense,” she says in the film. “So we found ways to see what we wanted to believe.” Schwartz didn’t learn the truth about her heritage until she was 18.
The film is really about the power of family secrets, Schwartz says, “and how much denial plays a part in that. And then the power of telling the truth…I feel like families are the building blocks of society, and until you can get families talking about these issues, it’s very hard to expect that society is going to make large changes.”
Schwartz says that she feels like identity is an ongoing thing that we all deal with on a daily basis, but that making the film has helped her work through accepting her history. “I’ve had the conversations I needed to have with my family, so it’s not holding me back in the way I felt like it was before I set out to do this. We see people who are very much affected their whole lives by the unresolved issues with their families. But I really believe in the process, and it’s helped me move forward and past it.”
So many people have approached Schwartz with stories of their own family’s “little white lies” that the film’s website, www.littlewhiteliethefilm.com, has a link to share those stories. “We’re doing an interactive experience for people to share those family secrets that we define loosely as ‘something everyone sort of knows but doesn’t talk about.’ As the project grows, by giving people a space to share their stories, we want to create more spaces where people can then be able to have conversations and be able to start the process of talking openly about their stories in order to move past them.” The website also features the trailer and clips from the film.
After the local screenings, Little White Lie will move on to other film festivals before limited runs in New York City and Los Angeles. At the end of March 2015, it will be broadcast on PBS.
Truth Aid premiered its feature narrative film Difret last January at the Sundance Film Festival. One of just 12 films accepted to compete in the World Cinema Dramatic Film category out of more than 12,000 films submitted, Difret tells the story of the legal-precedent-setting court case that outlawed the kidnapping of brides in Ethiopia. But Schwartz says that Truth Aid is not only about creating such quality multimedia projects, but also doing outreach and distribution for the work afterward to amplify its impact. “It’s not just about making the films,” she says, “but about using them once they’re done.”
Little White Lie, Friday, October 17, 7:45 p.m., $10, Woodstock Playhouse, 103 Mill Hill Road, Woodstock, (845) 679-6900; Saturday, October 18, 12 noon, $10, Orpheum Theater, 156 Main Street, Saugerties, (845) 246-6561; ulsterpub.staging.wpenginefilmfestival.com.