Canadian university student Katie Arneson (Kacey Rohl) is the ideal poster child for a “Fight Cancer!” campaign—upbeat, creative, and adorably cute despite her baldness and some serious weight loss. Except she really doesn’t have cancer at all—she’s faking it to get sympathy and money, running fundraisers on Facebook and using her illness to bolster a scholarship application. We learn all this very early in Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas’ White Lie, and also that Katie 1) is a serial faker, and 2) isn’t very good at it. At first, the only person to call her out is her estranged father (Martin Donovan), but gradually her efforts to control the story spin out of control as she doubles down with one bad decision after another, resulting in a tense psychological thriller all the more effective because it ends ambiguously.
It might be that Katie has a real illness, but of a psychological nature, like Munchausen’s syndrome. Or maybe she’s in it for the money, as the film establishes that she comes from a lower SES than her friends, or maybe she just finds that jerking other people around is a power trip. White Lies is not particularly interested in her motivation, however, but on how people react to her. She’s an oddly sympathetic character, despite committing fraud (she admits she’s raised about $26,000, all of which has been spent) and enticing other people to do likewise for her. Plus, it’s a natural human reaction to believe people you know, and to want to help them, and no one wants to be the jerk that accuses a person who is actually sick of faking it.
White Lies also serves as a critique of the way we respond to serious illness, and what we expect from victims. As Susan Sontag (who had cancer several times, ultimately dying from it) pointed out in Illness as Metaphor, illness is a biological matter but we love to speak of it in metaphorical terms, and to praise some victims as “fighters” who “conquered” their disease, suggesting that those who succumb perhaps just didn’t try hard enough. Fundraising campaigns also love to use photos of cute bald children on their posters, suggesting that patients who are less perky or attractive should be kept hidden from view. In that context, it makes sense that an actually healthy person would be the greatest poster child ever for a cancer fundraising campaign.
NewFest 2020 includes episodic programming as well as features and shorts, so I decided to check out the HBO series Equal (currently available to HBO subscribers). It consists of four episodes, each 30-40 minutes in length, covering different aspects of gay history. Billy Porter provides narration for all the episodes, and Stephen Kijak directs episodes 1, 3, and 4, while episode 2 is directed by Kimberley Reid. Overall, it’s a lively, fun series built out of archival materials (love those pulp novel covers!) and re-enactments, with the first episode particularly reliant on the latter. Normally, I hate re-enactments in a documentary, but these are so stylized that they’re really more like little stage performances that fool no one but deepen the portrait of the individual in question.
Episode 1, “The Birth of a Movement,” focuses on early organizations such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis; cast roles include Dale Jennings (Cheyenne Jackson), Harry Hay (Anthony Rapp), Phyllis Lyon (Heather Matarazzo), and Del Martin (Shannon Purser). Episode 2, “Transgender Pioneers,“ centers on the stories of Lucy Hicks Anderson (Alexandra Gray), Christine Jorgensen (Jamie Clayton), and Jack Starr (Theo Germaine), as well as the 1966 SF Compton’s cafeteria riot (which took place three years before Stonewall) in San Francisco.
Episode 3: “Black is Beautiful, Gay is Good!” focuses on the lives of Raisin in the Sun author Lorraine Hansberry (Samira Wiley), Civil Rights activist and writer Bayard Rustin; (Keiynan Lonsdale), and entertainer José Sarria (Jai Rodriguez), as well as the demonstration against police brutality held outside the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake, Los Angeles in 1967 (two years before Stonewall). Given that leadup, of course the fourth episode, “Stonewall: From Rebellion to Liberation” focuses on the Stonewall riots and the gay liberation movement that sprang up afterwards. Cast roles include Stormé DeLaverie (Elizabeth Faith Ludlow), Sylvia Rivera (Hallie Sahar), Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop founder Craig Rodwell (Scott Turner Schofield), and Village Voice reporter Howard Smith (Gale Harold). | Sarah Boslaugh
NewFest 2020 runs from Oct. 16 to Oct. 27, and most films in the festival are available for remote screening. Both single tickets ($12, $10 for members) and all-access festival passes ($95) are available. Further information, including details on the films and other events, is available from the festival web site.