Saturday, May 18, 2024

“CodeSwitching” from Cambridge’s Interlock Media uses documentary footage, theatrical sets, animation and original music to explore the Metco busing system for students of color.

Technically, the title for Jonathan Schwartz’s documentary (“CodeSwitching”) means flipping between languages or dialects when in conversation, but in this plumbing of the Metco busing program it means something more – how the faces of black Metco students bused from Boston to schools in white suburbs have to present to the communities they toggle between. The film screens June 24 as part of the 21st Roxbury International Film Festival (Wednesday through June 29).

The highlight of the Rox Film Fest – celebrating films by and about people of color –  will be “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” a documentary about the beloved author. The events take place around Boston, with “CodeSwitching” and other films showing at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury. There are all kinds of works showing and from all over, including even Marvel’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” 

Schwartz runs his documentary studio, Interlock Media, out of East Cambridge. “We’ve always been in Cambridge,” Schwartz says of the documentary producing nonprofit he started back in 1993, first on Arrow Street in Harvard Square and the Athenaeum Building in Kendall Square.

In a scene from “CodeSwitching,” a student talks about how hard it is to have “two Fatimas, Swampscott Fatima and Boston Fatima.”

Interlock Media focuses on social impact, with a website banner stating, “Countering climate change and inequity through great filmmaking.” A past accomplishment from Schwartz and crew includes a grim tour of an Alabaman prison hierarchy – “Turned Out: Sexual Assault Behind Bars” (2004) about prison rape, narrated by Danny Trejo (“Machete” and “Dusk Til Dawn”). 

The collaborative, nearly all-volunteer effort in making “CodeSwitching” sounds like a brighter experience. Schwartz describes making it as something of “a big dinner party,” with documentary footage, theatrical sets, animation and original music seeded primarily by grants from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and the Mass Cultural Council.

The film gives us a quick rewind of the busing crisis in the ’70s before catching up with Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity alums and some younger folks in and recently out of the program, discussing going to predominately affluent white communities such as Weston (where Schwartz lives) and Lexington for a better education and feeling ill at ease both there and back home. One girl addresses the idea of not talking “too black” when in the public parts of Weston. “There was a point it was like having two Fatimas, Swampscott Fatima and Boston Fatima,” a student says in the film. “It was so hard.”

Two of the women in the film discuss depression and suicidal thoughts, while “because of the social cache of sports,” male students can have it easier, Schwartz says – even as male students and former students discuss advice from family not to spend any time they don’t have to in suburbs where they might be marked for an arrest or harassment based on the color of their skin.

Schwartz, who embraces Metco and its mission, said he made the film as a platform for a better conversation. “The program needs more work from school systems to improve and provide more counseling and support, and it needs to get input from the alumni,” he says. 

On the radar next for Schwartz and Interlock Media are “The Extraordinary Passage of the Great White Hunter” and a piece on Margaret Fuller, the 19th century feminist and iconoclast.

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.