I Identify: What Forces Determine Your Identity?

Text logo reads I Identify with out of focus image of young woman in headscarf in the background..

In Little White Lie [airing on PBS this coming Monday, March 23 at 10pm; check local listings], filmmaker Lacey Schwartz uncovers an identity-altering family secret, and then embarks on a journey of discovery as she contends with her new sense of self. The film challenges us to reconsider the notion that identity is a stable, clearly-defined dimension.

Independent Lens takes up Little White Lie‘s challenge with the digital short, I Identify. We gather a diverse group of San Francisco Bay Area residents to take on the forces that shape identity, from family and friends, to deeply-held personal convictions, and social and historical developments far beyond any one person’s control. Watch the video:

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Little White Lie: Lacey Schwartz Uproots Her Family Tree

From Little White Lie, Lacey's family tree

As a girl, Lacey Schwartz grew up wondering why she had darker skin, which became a source of embarrassment for her and eventually led her to question everything. Little White Lie is the filmmaker’s personal journey through a lifelong legacy of family secrets that, once revealed, changed her own identity and sense of self. “The film is a searing portrait of collective denial,” wrote Ben Kenigsberg in The New York Times, “a diagnosis from which Ms. Schwartz doesn’t exempt herself.”

Little White Lie premieres tonight, March 23, at 10pm on PBS (check local listings).

Lacey took the time out to talk to us about the film, including ways it’s changed everything for her family, and how– while her story is certainly unique – she thinks it will spark similar conversations in other families.

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Nine Movies about Family Secrets

Lacey Schwarz as a child with her mom, on a rock, from the film Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz as a child with her mom, from the film Little White Lie

By Noel Murray 

When Lacey Schwartz applied to Georgetown at age 18, she left the “racial identity” box unchecked, but did submit a photograph, and not long after she was accepted at the university, she was invited to join the black student association. The problem? Schwartz had been raised in a white Jewish household, by a mother who told her that her darker skin and kinky hair were due to her dad’s roots in Sicily. After a few months in college, Schwartz learned the truth: that she was the product of a tryst between her mother and an African American man.

Schwartz’s documentary Little White Lie [airing on PBS this coming Monday, March 23 at 10pm; check local listings] is about more than just her family’s biggest secret. The film is a highly personal inquiry into the construction of racial identity, considering how others’ perceptions change depending on who they believe a person to be. But a big part of the appeal of Little White Lie is tied to its hook, because there’s something inherently dramatic in the story of an individual discovering that everything she thought she knew about her life was wrong.

The nine documentaries and feature films below offer a few more examples of how moviemakers have handled similar excursions into the sometimes-dark, sometimes-tangled roots of family trees. Continue reading

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Indie Lens Goes South by Southwest

Independent Lens goes to SXSW 2015

By Elisabeth Copper, Independent Lens social media manager

Independent Lens is packing up and heading down to Austin for what’s going to be our busiest SxSW yet. I know, I know, I say that every year. But take a look at what we have in store and you’ll see why we’re so excited for our time in Texas.

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Celebrate Women’s History Month with These Docs

From Solar Mamas

From Solar Mamas

March is Women’s History Month, and, like a lot of people, of course, I feel like women should be honored and celebrated every day of the year, but the idea behind an official month is to, as stated on the Library of Congress site, “more officially pay tribute to the generations of women whose commitment to nature and the planet have proved invaluable to society.” You can read more about the month here. [International Women’s Day, by the way, is this Sunday, March 8.] To celebrate women, we’ve compiled a list of just a few documentary films (both Independent Lens films and others) about important and fascinating women, including a few available to watch online via PBS.

View all Independent Lens films about women and girls >>

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Island President Update: Former Maldives President Arrested

Former president Nasheed arrested in Male, Maldives. Image via ImpactPartners

Former president Nasheed arrested in Male, Maldives

On Sunday (February 22), former president Mohamed Nasheed was arrested in the Maldives, refused bail by the court, and faces 10-15 years in prison. Since his arrest he was reportedly injured by the police and denied legal representation. He was brought into custody under an anti-terror law, accused of using the military to arrest a senior judge during his time in office. The first democratically elected president of the Maldives, President Nasheed was the subject of the Independent Lens documentary The Island President (PBS, 2013), which won a Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award and the International Documentary Association Pare Lorentz Award.

As Anthony Kaufman on Indiewire notes, the documentary community is rallying around Nasheed, and there’s even a Twitter hashtag (#FreeNasheedNow) to publicize his situation and mobilize support.

“We are concerned at recent developments in the Maldives, including the arrest and manhandling of former president Nasheed,” the Indian foreign ministry said in a statement issued in New Delhi.

More from Kaufman: “Officials from the U.S., United Nations, India and Canada have condemned the arrest. But as The Island President showed so effectively and amusingly, it’s hard to get noticed when you’re a small and slowly disappearing island nation of some 350,000 people. But what made Nasheed such a great film character and a great individual is that he managed to make waves that went beyond his country’s borders.”

Video of police dragging Nasheed to court:

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Filmmaker Talks about New Film on Racial Bias in America Then and Now

Gunnar Myrdal with Ralph Bunche in Washington D.C., 1942

Gunnar Myrdal with Ralph Bunche in Washington D.C., 1942

American Denial tells the the story of Swedish researcher Gunnar Myrdal, whose landmark 1944 study, An American Dilemma, probed deep into the United States’ racial psyche. The documentary weaves a narrative that exposes some of the potential underlying causes of racial biases still rooted in America’s systems and institutions today. The thoughtful and provocative film was quite a few years in the making, and a team effort between filmmakers Llewellyn Smith, Christine Herbes-Sommers, and Kelly Thomson. American Denial premieres tonight on PBS at 10 pm [check local listings]. 

Herbes-Sommers spoke with us about how this timely project came about and what she hopes viewers will take away from it. You can also listen to WBGO radio interview director Llew Smith about the film.

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Test Your Implicit Bias with Science

Implicit Bias Test Series of Faces

Created by Project Implicit, a research collaboration between scientists at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington, this Implicit Association Test (IAT) aims to “[measure] the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy)” that remain “outside of conscious awareness and control.” The test, which has been taken by more than two million people, reveals that even the most consciously tolerant of us may hold prejudices, and while you may be surprised by the results, you’ll be in good company.

The fast-moving test only takes about five minutes to complete, but regardless of your results, you’ll be thinking about your implicit associations for some time. The test is featured prominently in the new documentary American Denial, which premieres on Independent Lens Monday, February 23 at 10pm [check local listings]. Read on for more.

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Black Family History Through a Lens

Archival family photo from the Digital Diaspora Family Roadsow

A wonderful companion piece to Thomas Allen Harris‘s new film Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People is his Digital Diaspora Family Reunion project — a roadshow connecting communities and history through family photographic archives. Read more about the project in this Documentary Magazine piece, which accurately sums it up as using “the power of interactive media to create a movement to get African Americans to reconsider and revalue their family photo collections.”

Although they say a picture is worth a thousand words, rather than write another thousand words about this idea, here is a small collection of some wonderful historic images of African American people and families, both from the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion collection as well as a from other sources (where noted).

Scan through the photographs and then watch Through a Lens Darkly Monday night on PBS [check local listings].

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Thomas Allen Harris Goes Through a Lens Darkly

 Thomas Allen Harris holding up old image called "Alligator Bait"

The first documentary to explore the role of photography in shaping the identity, aspirations, and social emergence of African Americans from slavery to the present, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People probes the recesses of American history through images that have been suppressed, forgotten, and lost. Thomas Allen Harris’s film visits the past through the lens of the present by visiting the works of current and historical African American photographers as well as archival images dating back to the Civil War era. In tandem with Black History Month, Through a Lens Darkly premieres on Independent Lens on PBS this Monday, February 16 at 10 pm [check local listings].

Harris — whose films and installations have been featured at prestigious film festivals as well as museums and galleries including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Biennial, the Corcoran Gallery, Reina Sophia, and the London Institute of the Arts — talked to us about his own relationship with photography and what he hopes viewers will gain from seeing the film.

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