I have to admit a vested interest in Joel Katz’s new film, White: A Memoir in Color, which screens at Time and Space Limited (TSL) Warehouse in Hudson this Saturday, January 14 after premiering at the Jewish Film Festival in New York City on January 12. And it’s not just the fact that I was deeply affected by the serious study, both academic and emotional, evident in his last major work: Strange Fruit, all about the history of Billie Holliday’s famous song. My wife and son have gotten to know Joel and his wife and daughters through a shared adoption group. And we’ve done playdates that have given us the opportunity to talk for hours as our kids ramble around local playgrounds.
In those times, I’ve gotten a running update about Katz’s latest film, which we knew grappled with the complexities of adoption, just as our family’s lives have. At times, I’ve even gotten glimpses into the intense racial topics with which Katz has been wrestling as he has put together this accomplished memoir film in the chaos of a home filled with young kids. Nonetheless, I was moved beyond expectation by this strange, deeply thought-out love letter of a film, dedicated equally to Katz’s late father and his firstborn, Sonia.
First off, the film has an adventurous, but completely non-ostentatious, lyrical visual beauty that comes into play at times, and a pitch-perfect, haunting soundtrack by jazz musician Don Byron, a close friend of Katz. But it also has an honesty, and presents a rigorous examination of family, self and the often-disparate experiences of life, that add emotional resonance to what is also a damn good story.
We follow Katz and wife Leah’s adoption process, and their open-armed, openhearted willingness to adopt across races. But we also learn about Katz’s father’s work as the only white professor at all-black Howard University, and how he became curmudgeonly (and for a while deeply racist) as a result of his experience. We get uncomfortably close to the sorts of self-examination that all whites, no matter their shades or background, should try to face at some point in their lives.
According to the filmmaker, White: A Memoir in Color got its start in the mid-1990s, when Katz was teaching poetry video workshops in New York City high schools alongside a friend teaching about race issues and multiculturalism. Proposals were written, a few grants received, some beginning bits of footage shot. But then life shifted: Katz made Strange Fruit and other films, got tenured as associate professor and chair of the Media Arts Department of New Jersey City University and got married. Finally, after his last film’s release, he found himself ensconced in distribution matters for two years.
“It was really about whiteness in other people’s lives,” Katz says, noting the extra material that he has, from scientific interviews to hosts of third-person work, that ended up on the cutting-room floor, which is now being readied for an eventual DVD release. “In the midst of all this, I started working on a novel about my father; and then we got involved in our adoption story.”
Along the way, he adds, Katz was hit with something of an epiphany when he realized that all the most interesting stories about whiteness that he knew involved his own family. By then, he was already shooting elements of his own life, though, from visits and interviews with his Dad to visits from his adoption facilitator. But as he settled into the editing process for White, Katz’s life busied with new family business – and funders started to shy away from the nebulous, personalized aspects of what he was doing.
“It was the hardest, most tortuous film I’ve made to date,” he explained matter-of-factly. “I found myself having difficulties with my self-esteem, then questioning how I was working our daughter into the material. And then there was the challenge of finding the hours to concentrate, of editing a film at home with a young child to look after.”
Finally, years in, Katz started seeing the personal qualities of what he was doing. He showed what he was doing to friends, who gave him encouragement, and he started having more fun with what he was doing. By the time he locked his cut of the film last summer, he, Leah and Sonia were ready to bring a newborn into their lives: Nadia. As he now puts it, everything seemed to be working out.
Following the film’s premiere at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater this Wednesday and the Hudson Valley showing at TSL on Saturday, White: A Memoir in Color will play Atlanta and other film festivals, many of which started calling in the New Year after earlier rejections. “So what now?” we ask Joel Katz.
“For the time being, I feel I’ve told the stories I want to tell,” he said of personal filmmaking projects, “although I did show a cut to Leon Gast at one point, and he suggested I do a sequel – which I really could see in 20 years, when I can catch Sonia adding to this tale with her own voice.” After a pause, the filmmaker added that there was one other thing that he’d learned: “I never want to edit a film at home again,” he said – although by the looks of White: A Memoir in Color, we wouldn’t mind if he’d at least try.
The film plays this Saturday, January 14 at TSL Warehouse in Hudson at 3:30 p.m., with a question-and-answer period. The venue is located at 434 Columbia Street in Hudson; for further information call (518) 822-8100 or visit www.timeandspace.org. For more on Katz and his films, try www.onierafilms.com/Oniera_Films/wmc_desc.html.