Lacey Schwartz is the writer, director, producer and subject of Little White Lie, an emotional documentary that traces her upbringing as an only child in a white, Jewish family in upstate New York. However, it was during her freshman year in college that she learned the truth. When confronted, her mother finally acknowledged having had an extra-marital affair, and that Lacey’s biological father is, in fact, black. Today, Lacey is the CEO of Truth Aid, a multimedia production and educational outreach company focused on social issues. Her story makes for a fascinating conversation.
Sandi: Welcome to another edition of The 51%, Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein. There is plenty to talk about with Lacey Schwartz, lawyer turned filmmaker, married mother of twin boys, and my guest today. As a director/producer, Lacey has worked for various production companies. She’s currently CEO of Truth Aid, a company she and, Mehret Mandefro, a physician and anthropologist, founded in 2008. The two met during grad school at Harvard. Truth Aid makes movies, produces multi-media content and performs educational outreach on social issues. Three celluloid examples: All of Us, a film that explores the disproportionate rate of HIV/AIDs among black women, The award winning feature Difret, which details the legal precedent setting court case that outlawed the kidnapping of brides in Ethiopia, and the feature documentary Little White Lie, which is Lacey’s personal story and which is the first film she directed. It traces her upbringing as an only child in a white Jewish family in Upstate New York. Despite her light brown skin and dark curly hair, Lacey grew up never not thinking she was white. It wasn’t until she turned eighteen and was heading off to Georgetown University that she learned the truth, that her biological father was in fact black. After her freshman year, Lacey confronted her mother, who acknowledged having had an extramarital affair. Her parents, who separated when Lacey was in high school later divorced, but she’s close to both her mother Peggy, and Robert Schwartz, whom she considers her father. I have seen Little White Lie, it is powerful, emotional, and impactful. So, let’s meet Lacey Schwartz. Welcome and thanks so much for joining me today, Lacey.
Lacey: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Sandi: So, going off to college is a big a deal for most young people but for you, whoa; because it was then you learned the truth about your life. Talk to me about that.
Lacey: Yeah. I think for me, you know, when I really look at, fundamentally, what this film is about and this project is, it’s a coming of age story. I think that when you grow up, a lot of time, and obviously different people have different experiences; but frequently, young people very much are who their parents are. When they’re living under their roof for all intents and purposes they’re kind of an extension of them and then when they go out on their own for the first time, it’s the first time they’re really able to understand even the concept of themselves; of their own identity separate from their parents. I think for me, that was very much what happened, is that I defined myself according to who my parents were, for all intents and purposes, and then when I went out on my own, I was able to for the first time, see myself through my own experiences and my own eyes, not really just as an extension of my parents. I do think that that’s somewhat a common experience, now mine, is obviously unique just like many people’s experiences are unique, but it was unique and it was, kind of, burst a lot of things open. I do think it’s really an extension of that, that college, the first time I was on my own and able to see myself as my own person.
Sandi; So, what did you see that you didn’t know?
Lacey: Well, it’s interesting when you say what did I see that I didn’t know, I mean, I know that that was what I said, I think part of what my project is also very much about is the power of denial and how many of us, and about family secrets and I define family secrets as kind of this thing that everybody knows about but nobody actually talks about. We always, we have an interactive project around the film where we ask other people to upload their “little white lies”, and we define a little white lie as family secrets plus denial. So when there’s kind of this thing that everybody knows, but then you combine that with denial, you can create your own reality. So, for me, what I didn’t know is that my biological father was somebody else and I actually, therefore, was biracial; as I define myself as black. But the question of if I didn’t know that until college, did I really not know that, or was I, at that point, had actually learned my family’s denial about it and come to believe it myself? But in fact, really knew the truth deep down, but when I went away to college, it allowed me to be on my own and see myself more clearly and actually come to terms with what I think, deep down, I knew was the truth.
Sandi: Was that liberating or was that terrifying?
Lacey: I think it was, I mean, kind of both. I would say less terrifying, it was relieving.
Lacey: I think it was also frustrating. I think, when you grow up a certain way, and then all of a sudden you have to come to terms, it’s confusing.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lacey: I would say it was both relieving and confusing and frustrating because I had to then come to terms with my entire family and where I fit in and figure out what my true narrative was.
Sandi: But that’s a hell of a burden, isn’t it? That’s why I said whoa when I, when we began
Sandi: this conversation because college is a seminal moment in most young people’s lives. Short of going to boarding school when one is growing up, you’ve never done anything like this before. I mean, come on, sleep away camp doesn’t even hold a candle to this. So, you’re out there and you come with, if you want to call it baggage, not baggage, I mean, we all kind of schlep this stuff along with us when we go out into the world, how we were defined back home, and in your case, it just gets even more exaggerated.
Lacey: Yeah. I mean, I think you have a lot of issues that come together in my story; issues of paternity, issues of race, and switching identities, not to mention the idea of duel identity, not to mention this idea of, I was very much somebody who was raised Jewish and so coming to terms with what it means to be black and Jewish was its own layer. So there’s definitely many layers within my story. I think, as you’re kind of suggesting, you could take any one of them by itself, but when combine them all together, it is a lot. That being said, it also is what it is. I think that’s fundamentally how I look at life and what part of this film is about is documenting process and the power of process and the fact that, I don’t really look at it like there’s a hierarchy of issues we all experience. We all have our issues, right, and our issues are trying to us, but the question is, who much are we going to allow those to hold us back, how much are we going to be victims to our own experience, or are we going to find a way to, not to be kind of cheesy about it, but liberate ourselves from them.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lacey: So what is the process that we need to go through to move forward with our lives? We’ve seen in countless examples there’s all sorts of things that can be very, very traumatizing to a child and then to, like, an adolescent and then carry on into adult life and people never move past those things. It’s really unfortunate.
Sandi: I think that’s really true, and at the risk of sounding a little sexist, I think sometimes that is a harder cross to bear for females. That you’re defined a certain way, let’s say in high school or growing up, and you kind of carry that along with you.
Lacey; Yeah. It’s interesting. I think when I look at women, I look at them fundamentally as like women are, can be such care givers and they carry so much of the weight of the world with them. So, I think that a lot of time women are trying to manage a lot of different pieces and not necessarily only worry about their own situation, so that can also be quite difficult. That being said, I do think that a lot, I mean, I can think of a lot of men I know who are still kind of carrying on issues that they have with their relationships with their mothers or fathers and still not really being able to work through them and let them go.
Sandi: So, you go off to school, certain things that you said you knew but repressed are now all confirmed for you and at some point, to decide to make a movie. Why? How?
Lacey: I believe, Sandi, that films are a great way to talk about issues and get conversation started. You know, films are not, for me, media and you were talking about my organization; they’re not the endpoint in and of themselves, it’s really the beginning of the conversation. It’s about doing outreach around them, it’s about using them as powerful tools.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lacey: To make change, to create impact, to start conversations. I knew that I was interested in this larger conversation about duel identity, about diversity, about race and not just in terms of a kind of, a more nuance conversation than I see happening on a day to day basis in society about why we really have such a hard time talking about race, why we’re having such a hard time integrating society in any sort of real way. What I realized is that, I started actually being very fascinated, both looking at Jewish diversity and more specifically black Jews in America because I look at it like black Americans are kind of this iconic American identity and Jewish Americans have the this kind of iconic American identity and then there’s this iconic relationship the black Jewish partnership, and sometimes not partnership, sometimes complex in the United States, and so it was so fascinating to me that, at a time when I was still very much living in what I considered to be like a racial closet going out in the world and identifying as black but then going back to my family and not identifying that way. That I realized that I was very interested in individuals who were working to integrate these identities internally. There’s so much issue, there’s so many issues with integration and segregation within that larger society, but really, the people are actually experiencing those struggles internally as well. I wanted to talk more about groups, individuals that are parts of groups that deal with that and so I thought about doing more of like a larger survey film on black Jews and then realized that all of these issues that I was struggling with was because I was still struggling with it and that actually these individual processes are very powerful and that’s what I wanted to talk about; is the power to move past your own struggles and I thought what better way to do it. I can’t just go out and talk about it and say, oh everybody should do this, but actually to document my own process of pushing myself to do what I feel like it would behoove other to do.
Sandi: But on just the technical level of this, how did you think you could pull it off?
Lacey: When I, I went to law school.
Sandi: Mm Hmm. That was my point. [Laughing] You started off as a lawyer.
Lacey: Almost as soon as I got to law school, I really started thinking a lot about film. I think part of it is, I went to Harvard Law School, just such a well, kind of documented environment. There’s lots of movies about it, there is lots of books about it, and there was, and I was just thinking about how people have put forward their portrayal of that experience and I wanted to put forward my portrayal, and it just seemed like, there were all these issues we were talking about in law school about justice and all these things, using film and using media was a really, really powerful tool to talk about the issues that I was thinking about, we were learning about in law school. So, what I was able to do while I was there is, we had to write a third year paper, and I got permission from the law school to do a documentary film instead of writing a paper. They also, as part of that process, allowed me to take basic undergraduate film class to learn the basic skills. When I started doing it I really, really loved it. So, I continued through my law school years, frequently, instead of writing papers I would make films. By the time I got through law school, I realized that I really loved doing it and I really wanted to continue and I decided to pursue that line of work rather than going and practicing law. So, when I graduated law school, that’s actually what I did. I worked in development and production at a production company and continued on from there, kind of always thinking about and developing this project.
Sandi: But you did work in law, right? You did have jobs in corporate, civil rights, and entertainment law?
Lacey: I did, previous to and during law school and then I did a few projects here and there after law school, but primarily, actually before I graduated.
Sandi: So, you decide to make Little White Lie, which you first called Outside the Box. Why’d you change the name?
Lacey: I liked the initial name, but it just didn’t seem to get to the depth of what we were talking about and sum up the whole story. It just seemed to capture the, outside the box seemed to capture one layer, where little white lie captured multiple layers of what the film was about.
Sandi: I’m curious, did you have the support of your mother and father? Where they into it? Or were they freaked out?
Lacey: I think, you know, with my whole family and friends who were involved with this project, I went to them and kind of said I’m going to do a film and I’d like to film conversations, I’d you to be involved. I would say, all in all, people were supportive of it. They were obviously willing to participate. It wasn’t something we analyzed in large degree prior to kind of moving through it. I think at that point, a lot, again a lot of what my story’s about is about the unspoken, so it was almost like everybody kind of knew that this was out there and that we weren’t talking about it and I could imagine that they weren’t; I don’t know if they were surprised by the choice of how I wanted to deal with it, but I think that it seemed like it was inevitable that at a certain I was going to want to talk about it and deal with it. When I chose this and I asked them to participate in it, they did it. I think they just looked at it like that was my choice and they just decided to support me, which I’m really, really, thankful about.
Sandi: I think I read a quote where you’re mom said this was your story that you needed to tell.
Lacey: Yeah. Exactly. I think that that’s a really interesting part of the process is realizing that, you know, of course it’s about my family, but really it’s about my story and owning my story.
Lacey: And then going back to what me asked me about college, is, it’s so tricky how much your story, all of our stories are connected to our families’ stories, but how do we kind of differentiate and have a moment where own our own experience. Because I think, when I first started doing this, I really thought, oh well we all have to be on the same page, we all have to come to the same point and over the course of making this project, as you can see, I think this is represented in the film, is I realized that that’s actually not the case. That I’m able to move forward even in everyone in my family isn’t feeling and thinking the same things as me and it doesn’t mean that our relationships are going to be sacrificed because we’re not necessarily on the same page. There was a lot of kind of acceptance and learning for me in the course of that and that’s what really makes it that much easier to just own it as my story. I’m sure my parents would, if they were going to make a film, it would be film.
Sandi: Of course.
Lacey: Because it would be their story.
Sandi: Of course.
Lacey: This is very much my story.
Sandi: So you start this in 2006, and now it’s 2014. Eight years. Holy cow.
Lacey: [Laughing] Definitely.
Sandi: Who paid for this? How’d you do this? Why did it take eight years?
Lacey: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting. I have part of a great kind of filmmakers/producers lab in conjunction with an organization called Firelight Media and specifically the filmmaker Stanley Nelson and it’s a bunch of other kind of “merging” filmmakers, and it’s such an amazing community because it’s one place, I always say, that when I get together with those people I don’t feel crazy that it takes so long to make a film, like they all get it. I think that, I mean, part of it kind of takes shorter to make a film, absolutely, but that being said, I don’t think it’s as crazy as it may sound because sometimes to raise the money, to shoot the footage, to edit it, to process it, and not to mention, for life to unfold. That was in the end, a big part of it, is; I think we developed this film for, if you really break it up, it would almost be like we developed this film for three years, we shot it for three years, then we edited it for three years. It’s not that black and white, but that was really the process, like what does it take to get a film going and get like the cameras rolling and get enough support behind it to get going, then what does it take to actually wait for life to unfold and film it, and then what does it take to take all of that footage; because after you’ve shot for three years, I had a ton of hours.
Sandi: I bet.
Lacey: And what does it take to actually, kind of, cut all of that down into some sort of cohesive and engaging narrative.
Sandi: Is the we that you refer to Truth Aid, when you say we had to do this, we had to do that?
Lacey: Absolutely. So, Truth Aid is the company behind, the organization behind this and my business partner Merhret is also the producer for the film. When I say we, it means different people at different times. Merhret has been involved in the whole process but it also means the camera person, it means the editors that were involved, I mean, to be honest, it was a little bit of a revolving door of team members, but it’s been a really strong dedicated team throughout the project of making this film. It’s definitely a film that I have helmed and that I have done every little bit of, but at the same time there’s no way I could have gotten it done without an incredible team of really amazing and supportive people.
Sandi: So you’re making this movie in conjunction with running a company?
Lacey: Mm Hmm
Sandi: And you’re able to do both?
Lacey: Yea. I mean, they work together, right. I mean this is part of the work that we do and as you said in the beginning, a lot of what our organization is about, is about believing in the power of media; but then also about using it. For the last few years we’ve been very much in that production mode, kind of having our heads down and just grinding. Coincidentally, we never really thought this would happen, but it seemed at first that Little White Lie would always finish first, and then it seemed at a certain point that Difret would finish first and it ended up being that they both finished in the same year, so they are kind of two projects that we’ve been working on for quite a while; over five years with Difret and eight years with Little White Lie. They’re both coming to the marketplace in the same year, so it’s been a really incredible experience. It’s really, even though we’ve been around beforehand, this is really the official launch of this organization.
Sandi: Wow. If you’re just joining us, my guest today is Lacey Schwartz, she is CEO of Truth Aid. I want to talk about Truth Aid a little bit more. How was this organization born?
Lacey: The organization was, actually this is kind of the second incarnation of it. When All of Us was done, which is a film that Merhert was involved in, and actually features a lot of her work, she’s a medical doctor and she was looking at what was becoming an epidemic of HIV/AIDS for black females. You know, it’s a disease that started out as a white male disease.
Lacey: And became a black female disease, if you really look at the numbers. Realizing that, as a medical practitioner, looking at all the medical issues that there was other issues effecting it. There was actually like sociological issues and specifically around this issue of telling the truth and love and why women were having such a hard time protecting themselves. So a lot of what the documentary All of Us followed was about that and about that conversation. So Truth Aid was actually formed as Truth Aids, and it was built to do outreach around that film and to further the conversations that were happening around that film and as we, actually founded it initially, and then I got involved because we had obviously been good friends from graduate school and realized that the work we were doing was very much on the same par and expanded it beyond just about HIV to looking at more broadly issues of social barrier to well-being and really kind of bringing into consideration like, public health considerations. Merhert’s also a visual anthropologist, so really looking at media and how you can use it to talk about really important issues and create impact.
Sandi: How did you get this organization off the ground? Where’d you’re funding come from?
Lacey: You know, a lot of our funding has been project based in a sense, like many production companies, we’ve been really focusing in on that, and our funding really comes from everywhere from foundations, from individual grants, to fundraisers, to kickstarters. For Little White Lie we also received funding from ITBS, which receives it’s funding from the corporation for public broadcasting, so it’s really come from anywhere and everywhere, but we have done a lot of fundraisers as well. We continue to grow and expand, we’re now really in the outreach, we have other projects in production that we’re working on and that are coming up but we’re also really focusing now on outreach and the distribution piece of it.
Sandi: Explain the outreach part of that. What do you mean exactly?
Lacey: When I say outreach, I mean it’s really about, okay, you have this film, who’s going to see it and who’s going to use it. So for us, that’s a big part of it.
Sandi: You mean all the films that I listed? For example, not just yours? How are you going to get Difret out there? How are you going to get All of Us out there?
Sandi: You are talking about in addition to Little White Lie.
Lacey: Exactly. Yeah. It’s about how do we get it out there, and how do we not only get it out there, like, it’s not just about how do we get it into theatres and get box office numbers up or, it’s not just about the traditional distribution, it’s about actually the community screenings and making sure that it gets to the right people who can utilize it. A lot of that is partnering with community organizations, and other people who are already doing this work. Sitting down and having round tables with these organizations and saying to them; here is this project, how can you use it, how can we work together to build tools that okay, not only do screenings but have also curriculum around it, discussion tools. All kinds of different things.
Sandi: What about schools?
Lacey: Absolutely. Educational screenings and curriculum is a huge part of that.
Sandi: Who do you want to see Little White Lie?
Lacey: I should answer that I want everybody to see it.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lacey: But it’s true, obviously, but I really, I do, we obviously do have target audiences and kind of what I consider to be the heart of our audience. That’s obviously diverse audiences according to race, people who can really connect to this idea of having a mixed identity, duel identity, a complex identity.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lacey: We’re really finding that it’s not just about being biracial that people connect to this film, but its people who do feel like their identity is complex in one way or another. That could be somebody, you know, a white heterosexual person, but they still have this complexity to who they are. So, that’s very much a core of our audience. The Jewish community is also a big part of our audience. The black community, but also, youth. As you said before, the education. As I said earlier, it’s very much a coming of age film so bringing this into schools, both high school and colleges and being able to have discourse around it, is really, really important for us. So that’s a large part of our audience as well. With this film, we’re doing a very broad distribution approach, so we’re kind of doing very much a; what I call, kind of like the people’s approach to it and bring it to all , like, you know, some of the major festivals, also like the niche festivals – the black film festivals, the Jewish film festivals, the woman’s film festivals, the documentary film festivals, the anthropology film festivals and then the regional film festivals as well, to make sure that we’re connecting to all of these different audiences. Then we feel like if we go to all of our niche audiences that just shows how broad the audience for this project really is.
Sandi: I mean, my shoulders are sagging as I’m listening to this.
Sandi: That you’ve got to fly all over the country to promote this film. I mean, how do you manage to do all this? Do be a mom, to be a wife, to be a business woman, run a company, be a filmmaker, I’m exhausted.
Lacey: Yeah, me too. But, you know, obviously children add an incredible, add a dimension to it, both positively in and in terms of, more complex
Sandi: Guilt. The guilt part.
Sandi: Yeah. Uh huh.
Lacey: Yeah. It’s, you know, for me it’s less even guilt than it’s the actual logistics, right, I mean besides the fact that it actually hurts to miss them.
Lacey: But it’s the actual logistics and I think there’s one of two ways you can do that. You can either take them with you, and I have twins, that’s really difficult, or you have a really supportive partner and family, and that’s what I have. So, I’m incredibly lucky.
Sandi: You feel pretty terrific about Little White Lie, right? You’re very proud of this movie.
Lacey: Definitely. Yes.
Sandi: And what’s been the feedback and the reaction, on a personal level, as in your parents for example, and also then from strangers?
Lacey: You know, the person that can talk the most about in terms of reaction is my mother. Because it’s been really amazing. I mean, my mother is somebody who, probably like many people’s mothers, simultaneously has been like the person I’ve been the most frustrated with in my life an also been the most important person in my life. A lot of time even simultaneously, right, and she continues to be like literally the most supportive person and the most amazing person to me and also has probably done some of the most frustrating things to me.
Sandi: It’s an interesting word, frustrating, as opposed to things that just made me crazy.
Lacey: Yeah. I don’t know, I mean, it’s like, frustrating is the word I would use in hindsight. In the moment, maybe what I am is not frustrated, I’m angry.
Sandi: Yeah. Pissed.
Lacey: In hindsight, I’m not angry, right.
Lacey: So, that’s why I use that word because I’m not sitting here right now feeling angry.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lacey: Like part of it is I’ve, because I’ve gone honestly, I’ve gone in with my mother. You know, we’ve done it. We’ve really
Sandi: You mean you were in the ring with each other.
Lacey: Yes. We really have. We’ve gone into the ring, absolutely, and we’ve worked through a lot of it. Does it mean she can still frustrate me, absolutely, but it’s really helped a lot. Can we still bicker, absolutely, but we’re in a really, really healthy place and I think specifically around this project, it really, I think at a certain point, I realized that I had to, you know, almost learn to; you know, my mother had been lying.
Sandi: Exactly. There was a huge secret that was being kept from you.
Lacey: Like, many years. It was, you know, she kept this secret from me, but that was how she lived. These little white lies all the time, just to try to make, to smooth everything over, to make things easier; to not confront things, to not have to deal. That was very, very frustrating and it’s been really amazing because what she says about the film is that besides the fact that she’s proud of it, she feels very much like it taught her how to stop lying. I think that that’s really amazing. Not just with regards with me, but in her life in general. Like, how to start being more honest and open with people in her life and not being so afraid of the ramifications around that.
Sandi: So, in other words, people can change.
Lacey: Exactly. Which, the way she puts it, she says that for a long time she was guilty and now she’s responsible.
Sandi: I think that this movie must elicit just a myriad of reactions from people. Who don’t know you, don’t know your mother, don’t know your dad, but can walk away feeling angry, overwhelmed; now that’s our problem, not your problem. You cannot watch this movie and not have a reaction to it. I think it’s that simple, I can make that declarative statement.
Lacey: I appreciate that. Obviously, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’ve always said, when I was making this film, I wanted people to almost also walk out of this film thinking less about me and more about themselves. What’s going on in their lives? How they can move forward in a positive way. I think that fundamentally, the film is positive and it shows that you can grow and what I really tried to do is, in the end, it’s a documentary but we’re all characters in this film, right. What I really wanted to convey was how we’re all nuance characters. We all have our positives and our negatives and it’s not that I necessarily want you to like, love one person and hate the other; I want you to understand the complexity of them. That the more you can do that, the more you can just accept people for who they are, the more you can move forward. I think that what I’ve found is that a lot of people, after seeing the film, understand that potential. Not just with us as characters but with the people in their lives as well.
Sandi: So, you’re performing a public service.
Lacey: I mean, I’d really like to feel like this film is helping other people. Or, has the ability to help people. Even if it doesn’t help them to actually make change in their lives, just to help them feel seen and heard. I think that there’s a lot of issues that are going on, especially within families that we’re just not talking about and I think that there’s a lot in this film and it doesn’t mean that they connect; their story is exactly my story, but I think there’s different pieces different people connect to and relate to and that that can be very helpful for people to see. I know, when I hear a song or I see a movie or I read a book and I relate to it, it just really feels wonderful to feel like you’re not alone. That’s what a lot of the reaction that I’m getting from other people after they see this film.
Sandi: So, Lacey, how are people going to be able to see Little White Lie?
Lacey: Right now the film is traveling around to festivals and community screenings. It’s also going to be doing a limited theatrical release in New York and LA starting at the end of November and it’s also going to be on PBS on the Independent Lens series in the end of March. All of that information can be found on our website which is littlewhiteliethefilm.com.
Sandi: You got a lot on your plate, Lacey. It was my pleasure to get to know you and to hear your story, which is a fascinating one and an important one.
Lacey: Well, thank you so much. It’s really truly been a pleasure talking.
Sandi: Join us again for another edition of the 51% Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein.
Narrator: Thanks for listening to The 51% Conversations with Creative Women. For show comments and suggestions please follow us on Twitter at #sandikleinshow. You can also find us on Facebook at The 51% Conversations. The show is produced and recorded by Chad Dougatz at the Hangar Studios in New York City. Sandi Klein is our executive producer.