Downloads: Press Release
Vivacious, Beautiful and Talented, Pam White Faces the Ravages of Alzheimer’s,
Just as Her Mother, Marian, Did
“An affecting, lyrical documentary. . . . More than just a personal memoir, the film aspires to poetry. . . . Mixing the past and present . . . the film mirrors the decline of [Pam’s] faculties but affirms the persistence of memory and identity.” — Peter Keough, The Boston Globe
The Genius of Marian is an intimate and courageous portrait of filmmaker Banker White’s 61-year-old mother, who is struggling with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As importantly, it is a film in which paintings, home movies, photos and current footage come together to depict a family afflicted with Alzheimer’s in two generations—and fighting to cope with loss while holding on to its collective memory.
Pam White, whose mother died of Alzheimer’s, is the center of this story and the family, even as the disease drains her memories and alters her personality. Yet, somehow, through all the comic and tragic incidents that mark the illness’s inexorable progress, Pam, her husband and her kids, find something in themselves, as a family, that can’t be taken away. Even late in the film, in a lucid moment, Pam says, “This doesn’t really change anything.”
Banker White and Anna Fitch’s The Genius of Marian, an Official Selection of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, has its national broadcast premiere on Monday, Sept. 8, 2014 on PBS (check local listings) on POV (Point of View), American television’s longest-running independent documentary series and the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
By her own account, Pam White’s early years were a fairy tale. Her father owned a hotel in Cambridge, Mass., and her family lived in it as if it was their castle. Her mother was the renowned painter Marian Williams Steele, who became noted for stunning portraiture and New England landscapes, including lively impressionistic scenes of her family at play at the Gloucester seashore.
Even when the fairy tale ended, with Pam’s father losing the hotel and her parents divorcing, Pam seemed marked for special things. From her mother, she inherited a zest for life and a buoyant optimism, not to mention beauty. In her youth, she was a model and actress. Her parents’ divorce gave her a strong desire for family, so she married Ed White from New York and raised three children in Needham, Mass., while continuing a career in social work as a high school counselor. Her husband was loyal and successful. As Jane Brewer, one of her admiring friends, says, “She had the furthest to fall. She was the best at everything she did.”
In 2008, Pam began writing a book about her mother, titled The Genius of Marian. Marian Steele had remained a strong, inspiring presence in her family’s life until her death in 2001 from Alzheimer’s. Pam started her book, she tells Banker, because his grandmother was “amazing,” a person whose memory should be “kept alive and not forgotten.” In an uncanny twist, Pam was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s only a year after beginning the book.
And so the film starts to become the book that Pam may not be able to finish and, beyond that, the story of two remarkable women and their family’s struggle to cherish, preserve and persevere in the face of a seemingly annihilating illness. The special dread of Alzheimer’s is that it robs people of their memories and leads to uncharacteristic, sometimes dangerous, behavior. It is often a long and isolating disease process. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are approximately 5.4 million people in the United States with Alzheimer’s disease; up to 5 percent have early-onset, which affects people younger than 65. And for the 15 million caregivers, the stress can be debilitating.
The Genius of Marian follows Pam’s struggles, from early episodes of word fumbling that seem almost funny and attempts to hide “memory issues,” to more serious states of confusion and distress, emotional outbursts and increasingly quarrelsome resistance to her care—and caregivers. Then comes helplessness in everyday tasks. Ed, to whom she’s been married for 40 years, patiently bears the brunt of the care and his wife’s frustrations. He manages by remembering “the phenomenal life she’s given me.” In addition to Pam’s eldest son, Banker, her son Luke and her daughter, Devon, and Devon’s own young family all pitch in to help Pam hold on to as much as she can for as long as she can.
Marian’s paintings offer them special joy and bring their memories to life. When Banker asks his father which painting is his favorite, he responds, “The painting of the girl in the yellow beach hat. Pam is in a yellow bathing suit with this big brim, yellow hat on, sort of looking at the sea. Her hair is blowing in the wind and she’s got this beautiful smile on her face. It’s spectacular.”
In an early scene, Pam and her son Banker are discussing things she can’t do anymore. Banker is driving while recording the conversation and asks whether Pam remembers her own mother’s loss of memory. Pam answers, “She had Alzheimer’s and I don’t.” Banker responds, “Didn’t the doctor say that you did have early-onset Alzheimer’s?” Pam snaps, “Careful!” and they continue in awkward silence. Pam’s friend Jane recalls this period: “She would call it her ‘memory issues,’ but then would say, ‘Please don’t tell anyone.’ And I didn’t.” Indeed, Pam would often ask the few friends and family members she did inform to keep her diagnosis a secret “because people worry . . . about catching it.” Eventually Pam does tell her close friends, and we watch them do their best to help and to stay close to a beloved friend while slowly losing her.
The Genius of Marian offers special insight into how, for Pam and her family, the struggle is not only to cope with the physical realities of Alzheimer’s, but also not to let the disease psychologically overwhelm them. They know Alzheimer’s ultimately will take Pam, but they won’t let the disease define their memories of her or of the ways they have been blessed by her presence. White’s film, like his mother’s book, is about an amazing woman. She, too, cannot be forgotten.
In a poignant moment, Pam sums up who she is in a soliloquy for the camera. “I live for my family and my children,” she says. “And one little glitch is that I have developed Alzheimer’s, and initially I was quite distressed and upset about it, but it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t really change anything. So I don’t feel sad and I don’t feel regret. I feel blessed that I have this wonderful family and a husband who is extraordinarily wonderful. I just feel like maybe the way my mother did when she was dying. It just was the way it was. And remembering, keeping, cherishing all the times I had with friends and family . . . it’s all good. No regrets.”
“I have been making documentary films for more than a decade, and each project has been deeply important to me in its own way,” says director Banker White. “The Genius of Marian is the most personal and challenging project I have ever undertaken. I approached this film both as a loving son and as a patient observer.
“On the surface, the film is about my family’s effort to come to terms with the changes Alzheimer’s disease brings. But it is also a meditation on the meaning of family, the power of art and the beautiful and painful ways we cope with illness and loss. The last few years have been a roller coaster of emotions, filled with frustration, sadness, joy and celebration.
“I grew up feeling like my mom could do it all—and often, she did. She worked full-time while raising my siblings and me, maintained deep friendships and dedicated herself to helping others, both in her personal life and in her career as a therapist. The spirit of my mother’s book project was my point of departure—the deep desire to memorialize someone we love and to connect with the difficult and complex emotions that surround losing them. My goal is to create a film that finds light and beauty in a place often shrouded in shame and confusion.”
“The Genius of Marian is a reminder that we don’t often talk about the really important things until we’re in the middle of a tragedy,” says Anna Fitch, co-director and Banker’s wife, “but you don’t have to wait. Alzheimer’s give you the unique gift of time with someone you know you are going to lose. I hope our film will inspire people to connect on an intimate level with everyone they love.”
The Genius of Marian is a co-production of WeOwnTV and Impact Partners in association with American Documentary | POV.
About the Filmmakers:
Banker White, Director/Cinematographer
Banker White is a multi-disciplinary artist based in San Francisco. His projects have been supported by the Sundance Documentary Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Capital, the Tribeca Film Institute, Impact Partners, the LEF Foundation, the BRITDOC Foundation, the Catapult Film Fund, The Fledgling Fund, Cal Humanities and the Pacific Pioneer Fund. He is the director/producer of the documentary Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (POV 2007), which tells the remarkable story of a group of six Sierra Leonean musicians. The film was nominated by the IDA for best feature in 2006; won grand jury awards at AFI Fest, the Full Frame Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival; and earned audience awards at SXSW and the Miami International Film Festival. It was broadcast on POV in North America, HBO Latin America and NHK in Japan, among others. Banker also founded WeOwnTV, a collaborative filmmaking and storytelling project based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Anna Fitch, and daughter, Dylan. Banker received a bachelor of arts degree from Middlebury College in 1995 and a master’s degree from the California College of the Arts in 2000.
Anna Fitch, Producer/Co-Director
Anna Fitch is an Emmy-winning director with a background in natural history filmmaking and a bachelor’s degree in entomology. Her documentary work has aired on the National Geographic Channel, TLC, Channel 4 and PBS. Awards and nominations include the 2003 News and Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Direction for Living With Bugs: Close Encounters. In 2003, BugWorld: Close Encounters was a finalist in the popular science and natural history category at the Banff Television Festival. In 2011, her narrative short The Burning Wigs of Sedition was in competition at many festivals, including the Seattle International Film Festival, and won a best of festival prize at the Black Maria Film and Video Festival and an audience award at SF Indiefest. Anna lives in San Francisco with her husband, Banker White, and daughter, Dylan.
Director/Cinematographer: Banker White
Producer/Co-director: Anna Fitch
Co-producers:Shaleece Haas, Jenny Raskin
Executive Producer: Dan Cogan
Editor: Don Bernier
Original Music: Tyler Strickland
Running time: 86:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer: Cynthia López
VP, Programming and Production: Chris White
Associate Producer: Nicole Tsien
Production Coordinator: Nikki Heyman
Produced by American Documentary, Inc. and now in its 27th season on PBS, the award-winning POV is the longest-running showcase on American television to feature the work of today’s best independent documentary filmmakers. POV has brought more than 365 acclaimed documentaries to millions nationwide. POV films have won every major film and broadcasting award, including 32 Emmys, 17 George Foster Peabody Awards, 10 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, three Academy Awards® and the Prix Italia. Since 1988, POV has pioneered the art of presentation and outreach using independent nonfiction media to build new communities in conversation about today’s most pressing social issues. Visit www.pbs.org/pov.
POV Community Engagement and Education (www.pbs.org/pov/outreach/)
POV’s Community Engagement and Education team works with educators, community organizations and PBS stations to present more than 650 free screenings every year. In addition, we distribute free discussion guides and standards-aligned lesson plans for each of our films. With our community partners, we inspire dialogue around the most important social issues of our time.
POV Digital (www.pbs.org/pov/)
Since 1994, POV Digital has driven new storytelling initiatives and interactive production for POV. The department created PBS’s first program website and its first web-based documentary (POV’s Borders) and has won major awards, including a Webby Award (and six nominations) and an Online News Association Award. POV Digital continues to explore the future of independent nonfiction media through its digital productions and the POV Hackathon lab, where media makers and technologists collaborate to reinvent storytelling forms. @povdocs on Twitter.
American Documentary, Inc. (www.amdoc.org/)
American Documentary, Inc. (AmDoc) is a multimedia company dedicated to creating, identifying and presenting contemporary stories that express opinions and perspectives rarely featured in mainstream media outlets. AmDoc is a catalyst for public culture, developing collaborative strategic engagement activities around socially relevant content on television, online and in community settings. These activities are designed to trigger action, from dialogue and feedback to educational opportunities and community participation.
Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Bertha Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, The Educational Foundation of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, and public television viewers. POV is presented by a consortium of public television stations, including KQED San Francisco, WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG.
POV online pressroom: www.pbs.org/pov/pressroom