Producing A Documentary: The Personal Piece

As journalists, stories are our lives. We search everywhere for them, hoping our next piece will be even more compelling than our last.  After the initial research, we embark on the quest to find great characters. But first we must convince reluctant strangers to allow us into their lives. We need access and permission to bring our cameras into their most intimate settings; their homes; their jobs; their hospital rooms, etc.

But what if the character in your next piece isn’t a stranger at all? What if it’s a family member? Could you interrogate your parents and get them to reveal secrets they’ve buried since before you were born? Could you delve into the personal accounts of people you’ve known your whole life? How would you even approach it?

This is exactly what documentary filmmaker, Lacey Schwartz, had to do in order to produce her documentary, Little White Lie. Recently, Columbia Visuals talked to Schwartz about the process of producing a documentary and turning the cameras on her own family.

Columbia Visuals: What motivated you to tell this story?

Lacey Schwartz: I was doing research on Jewish diversity. I was very fascinated by black Jews in America and people who struggle with dual identities. African-Americans have an iconic American identity. Jews have an iconic American identity. This idea that individuals were figuring out how to integrate their own identities interested me. At first I thought I wanted to make more of a survey film around black Jews in America. When I started to sit down and really ask myself, ‘Okay, well that’s a great topic but what’s the story?’ I pushed myself further. I realized that, for me, rather than talking about an issue, really the best way to move an issue forward is to encourage people to work on that issue themselves. But I still needed to do that work. So my idea was to document that process about how I uncovered my own family secrets and integrate my own dual identity.

CV: How did you approach family members and get them to open up about this sensitive subject?

 LS: Going to ask for their permission was really trying at the beginning. My family and I, especially my mother, were not openly talking about my black identity at the time. It’s something that I felt that we were going to have to get into at some point. So those were kind of inevitable conversations. It was more about when and how. It was also a big question of whose right it is to tell a story. It is my story, but my story is inextricably linked to my family’s story. Do I have that right to tell that story? I had to work through the process of how to do that and how to think about it. I sat down with each member of my family and I said, ‘I’m doing this film and I’d like you to participate in it, but obviously it’s your choice whether you’d like to or not. I’m going to do it regardless, but I’m asking you to be a part of it.’ And they all were willing to do it. But I didn’t want to just jump into the conversation right then and there. I wanted to let people get comfortable with the camera so it ended up taking many years; about 8 to 10 years. I shot from 2006-2009. Then it was edited from 2010-2013.

family passoverFamily Passover. Photo provided by Lacey Schwartz

CV: What were some of your challenges during filming? What was the biggest lesson you learned?

LS: It was pretty difficult to figure out how to communicate clearly. The challenge was learning how to communicate, through writing narrative in particular, so that my experience was accessible. I went into it thinking that just by being willing to go through the process and film it, and talk about what I was experiencing, people would understand what I went through. I thought then we would just have to edit it and cut it up and we’d get the story. But even after it was shot, I had to go to a whole other level of how to communicate effectively what this experience and my journey was. I would think I was really deeply into it and that I was being effective and then I would screen it for people and they would say, ‘We don’t feel like we’re understanding what you went through.’  So it was hard to keep on going deeper and deeper.

 It was emotionally draining. That was part of it. There were two draining pieces of this film. And within these two categories of draining there are many different levels. One was the personal aspect of it. The second was what it takes to make an independent film. So it was kind of balancing those two things out and having to stop for different periods of time to raise money, to build a production team, to find the right editor.

 Also, when you’re doing independent filmmaking it’s really hard to ever really get past fundraising. You can have other challenges, but fundraising can be debilitating to a project. So I would say although there were lots of other challenges, because the pressure of fundraising is so constant to keep going, it almost overrides everything else.

CV: What inspired you to become a doc filmmaker?

LS: I started out in law school, but I’ve always been interested in film. In law school it really hit me; I felt like film was the respected medium to talk about the issues that I was interested in and cared about. I had to do a third-year paper to graduate, but I was able to convince the law school to let me do a film instead to satisfy that requirement. I was also able to take basic, non-fiction film classes with the undergraduates so that I could learn the basic skills. Once I started doing it in school and I really loved it, I realized that was what I wanted to do.

CV: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers who want to tell their personal stories?

LS: Producers and directors must have endurance and resilience. Know why you’re doing it. Know who your audience is and connect with them from an early point. You’ll be better off.  Also, start thinking about funding immediately! But I wouldn’t suggest people just pile their own money into a film. Understand and develop relationships with funding sources that are going to be good for their project. That was something that also took me a lot of time. Applying for grants takes time.

CV: What should people take away from this film?

LS: I want people to reflect on their own family secrets and how they can move forward in a positive way. I want them to be able to explore their own dual identities, denial and family secrets. I want them to think about what they need to do to have healthy conversations with their families. They can also come to my interactive site to share their stories.

 Little White Lies will be screening the week of November 21st in New York City.

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