Alzheimer’s Doesn’t Diminish the Genius of Marian or Her Daughter

Pam White & Banker White by the beach - watercolor painting titled "Last Summer."
Pam White & Banker White by the beach – watercolor painting titled “Last Summer.”

By Danny Peary

The Genius of Marian fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. For now, I recommend that everyone watches Banker White’s intimate tribute to his mother (and grandmother) next Monday, September 8, when it plays on PBS’s POV documentary series.


Just before her sixtieth birthday, Pam White (in a film still, left), the devoted wife of Ed White and mother of three adult children, began to formulate a book titled “The Genius of Marian.” It would pay loving tribute to her own mother, artist Marian Williams Steele, who died in her early nineties in 2001 from complications caused by Alzheimer’s. But soon after, Pam herself was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Her forty-year-old filmmaker son Banker, who directed the award-winning documentary Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars (about a unique group of musicians), moved back into his parents house in Massachusetts to be caregiver.  He soon picked up a camera and over the next four years, with the help of his new wife, producer Anna Fitch, made this deeply-felt documentary about his special mother, while keeping her title for the project about his grandmother. The Genius of Marian was the first film I saw at the 2013 TriBeCa Film Festival, which I was covering for the Australian magazine FilmInk, and nothing I saw after was as touching and tender.  Pam and Ed were thrilled to be at the festival with the movie, but I didn’t get the chance to visit with them. However I did the following interview with Banker and Anna, while their new baby Dylan showed remarkable patience.  Note: After the interview, you can read Banker’s brief update on the film and his family.

Banker White, Anna Fitch, and baby Dylan in 2013.
Banker White, Anna Fitch, and baby Dylan in 2013.

Danny Peary: You decided to title your movie The Genius of Marian, which was your mother’s title for the book she wanted to write about her mother. Tell me about the decision to keep a title and that would have one meaning for you and another for your mother, who is the subject of your film.

Banker White: I think the biggest reason I kept her title was that it makes it feel like our project, something I started with my mom, like her book project. I got feedback, interestingly, that I should change the name, because everyone was going to think that Marian is my mom.

DP: It’s a big decision to go with that title.

BW: It gave me the opportunity to think about it, and it made me more confident that this project is something I did together with my mom. And the spirit of it seems to capture the idea of the film also.

Anna Fitch: One of the things that I love about the title and having a child and thinking about these things is: to me, the genius of Marian the person is that she gave something to her daughter and to her grandson that has helped the family long after she passed, and there’s something really beautiful in the magic of being able to be present and helpful beyond the years that you live on this planet.

DP: Banker, were you going to be involved in the book project, or was it just your mother?

BW: I was involved because of all of the grandkids. I’m the only fine artist, so I started a digital archive of Marian’s paintings.  I was doing that as a side activity. My mom wanted to write a book that was a tribute to her mother, my grandmother Marian. I think she also liked the idea of showing her art again and building her legacy. But for my mom, the project was about the love between a parent and a child and what it’s like to have your parent age and go through Alzheimer’s.

DP: So was her book going to include a lot of the Alzheimer’s material about her mother?

BW: I’ll say yes, but that amount of writing didn’t really manifest. I’d say there are only about twelve pages in Microsoft Word. Then there was lots of stuff that was printed out or handwritten, with things circled and crossed out.

DP: Marian continues to live because pictures are still all over the walls of your parents’ house, and we see her work in your film that will exist forever because of it. You’ve assured everyone that it will never go away. This is what you’re thinking of, correct?

BW: Yeah. I indentify myself as an artist. And I did that for a decade-plus before I made my first film, kind of like a professional. To make a film about personal subject matter, especially this, was so raw and so different from what it’s like to be a writer or a fine artist who works with personal material. What you just said–this is going to be a document that lives on and is going to be the way, primarily, that my daughter gets to know my mother. I feel this film is a tribute to my mother that shows her with dignity and as the beautiful, talented, amazing woman that she has been. But also it is an honest portrait about what’s so tragic about Alzheimer’s as a disease. There was a constant conversation that happened all the way through shooting the film together, and all the way through the edit, about trying to find that balance and be able to go deeper and do it in a way that still reflected a lot of love.

DP: You just mentioned the word balance. In your Director’s Statement in the film’s press notes, I think it’s revealing that two times you use the word “patience” and two times you use the word “celebrate.” Patience refers to you, celebrate refers your mom–you don’t want to mourn, but to celebrate her., So there’s that balance even in your statement–when you say something negative, you make sure to say something positive.

BW: Someone who was half a decade in front of us in terms of the disease process, while looking at our family and what we were doing, described Alzheimer’s to me as “the longest memorial they’ve ever been to.” He meant that we were doing it in a very balanced way–because the disease moves so slowly it gives you precious time to celebrate with the ones who have it while they are alive, not only after they pass. The film is a living document that we created so that other people can celebrate her later, but for me the process of filming was a way to celebrate her for four incredibly precious years. I pretty much moved back into my parents’ house. It felt for the most part joyous, this continuation of my mom’s project when we were looking through old photos and remembering these milestones in our lives. We did more of that than I think the film maybe lets on, because we also tell this other story, which is more of a traditional look at what it was like for us over that time.

DP: Probably you two had conversations during those years in which you said, “It’s hard but I’m so glad I’m doing this and having this experience because there’s a treasure here.”

BW: What’s interesting is that Anna became family through the process of making the film. We had just met when I showed her one of the first things I ever shot of my mom.

AF: Yeah, I met Pam through the footage before I met her in person. And the thing that struck me, from these early interviews that Banker shot was the warmth between them. Sometimes we don’t feel the full spectrum of emotions that we have for our parents until after they die. But I felt like they were living in the moment and having these deep feelings of connectedness that you can miss in busy lives or when you don’t live near your parents. And that footage made me really want to connect with my own parents, who were in good health and weren’t having any acute issues related to aging or illness. We hear from people who see this film that it makes them think about their relationships with their parents, whether they are ill, healthy, or have already passed. This is a film about family on a deep level, and about feelings that we don’t usually talk about or feel except in times of crisis.

DP: Banker, there’s a cheery look to the whole film.  It’s very brightly shot, some in beautiful locations; your grandmother in the old film clips is beautiful, your mother is beautiful, your sister is beautiful; all the faces are nice and friendly faces; and you and your father, Pam’s devoted husband Ed, are acting cheerful.  Talk about what you wanted to accomplish with the cinematography and the images.  Was a cheery look what you were going for because the subject is so sad?

BW: I wanted to be intimate.  It is framed so that it should feel less like a formal interview than an intimate conversation. The truth is, Anna and I lived in the house as part of the care-giving team and spent a lot of time not filming, so I think we enjoyed looking at and making beautiful images.  Some of it is because we used only natural light, so it was really just light on walls. The thing is, if you don’t engage my mom, there’s this real quiet in the house. There’s the stillness that I think is beautiful and sad.  It’s a house that has a lot of life in the pictures around it but not in the people living there right now. Even with my dad.  Much of the time he is upstairs working, so there’s a lot of quiet. That house has a lot of history, but it feels that it isn’t really being lived in.  I think we looked and looked at the house and saw what was beautiful about it. We even did some time lapses of just the light moving through the house.

AF: We looked for brightness and light and joy because we needed that in our own lives and it got recorded and came across in the film. At certain points that was easier than at other points. At one point when things were just really hard, we decided to have fun doing what we called the fantasy scene, where we found old navy whites and recreated this beautiful love story that Pam had told a year earlier.

DP: That wasn’t part of your plan, you just decided to do that?

BW: It was pretty playful.

AF: We were inspired by Pam’s story. There is a lot of archival footage in the film, but we didn’t have any from that period. At that point, we needed a fun project.

BW: We did try to shoot some beautiful things, but we also included a lot of things in the movie that that we just captured, including some interactions with my mom on a very simple camera, that I can say honestly were not expected to be in the film until it became what it did.  We went back and looked at the footage and saw her ability to articulate ideas and emotions that she was feeling.  How do you articulate confusion, or what it feels like to have your independence slowly taken away?  So we decided to use a lot of footage from that period that we hadn’t expected to include. It’s warm, but it’s not classically beautiful cinematography. For the early stuff in the kitchen, my conversation with my mom in the car, and my brother trying to convince her to take the medicine, I just had a little video camera.  But the film is all about the story and raw emotions.

DP: In the medicine scene, that everybody else is telling her what to do in her own house must have been really jarring for her.

BW: As much as she knew on some level that she’d been out of control, she was a therapist and knew exactly what it meant to give someone an antipsychotic. She’d recommended it before for others.  She was delusional and violent for a period, and I didn’t know how much she remembered of that. I tried to talk to her about those episodes after she calmed down, but I still have no idea.

DP: In the scene in the car, you ask your mother if she remembers that she has Alzheimer’s. I would imagine that you had done that before.

BW: It’s one of those questions that we asked all the time. I’m asking her the question that I know the answer to. I’m testing her, and it’s a loving curiosity, to want to understand, but it is an activity that I think all of us found ourselves doing a lot in the beginning. When we were all so confused and had not found a way of coping with what was going on, I would ask her what it felt like and she’d deny that she had Alzheimer’s. I wanted to be respectful, and I don’t think it comes off that I’m sounding frustrated.  I think of all the conversations where I might say, “Well, no, Mom, you told me before…” Sometimes it would take me a long time to say that, because sometimes you’re so confused by it all. She looks so young so how can she not remember that we were just at the kitchen table with Dad?

DP: At the doctor, did your mother try to cover up her memory loss?

BW: Yeah.  In that scene it’s pretty clear that she tried to use humor to deflect questions. She still knew how to be charming when she no longer knew the answers.  She still knew how to change the subject. For me those neurologist visits were incredibly eye-opening experiences, because I didn’t have a set of questions geared toward exposing her deficits. So when I saw her inability to perform well on most tests, even though I knew she was really struggling, I was really shocked. What year is it?  She’d be more than a decade off or not have any answer.

DP: So was filming this movie a coping mechanism for you?

BW: Yeah, absolutely.

DP: Your bother and sister didn’t have that experience because they didn’t live there and they didn’t make the film with you.

BW: But it definitely helped us have an open dialogue as a family, when there was a sharing of ideas for the film. Also we talked about things off-camera that were really special. Specifically, with my dad it opened up a space for us to be able to talk.  That allowed healing because it wasn’t happening before. And as an artist and creative person, I feel incredibly blessed that somehow my professional world took an interest in this.  Which is a weird way to put it.  I had other projects that I’m still working on today, but then my life took this unexpected turn, and I made a decision as a son–not as a filmmaker–to spend time with my mom and dad and help my dad through this. I process my life through creative projects and activities, so it was a natural thing for me to film it. So I made the movie and I’m grateful that my professional network says, “This is beautiful. We don’t think of it as just a personal thing but we see it has value for everyone.”  Anna probably gets most of the credit for letting me know that the approach we were taking would resonate with other people. So I feel really lucky that I was able to make the film without coming across as crazy for being a forty-year-old who moves back in with his parents.

DP: When people are very ill, everyone keeps a calm demeanor around them and keeps from falling apart in front of them.  You seem to be a calm person anyway, but that’s definitely how you come across around your mother in the movie. And your dad, too, although we do see him get emotional in front of the camera.

BW: Yeah, but he doesn’t do that in front of her, too.

AF: She’s very emotionally reflective, and if you can be calm and think things are funny instead of tragic, then she thinks that way too.  It’s just a much nicer path.

BW: You’re there because you love her, so you can’t feel that you need to have a conversation or go through the process of having a conversation just so it feels like it used to feel.  If you can just be in the moment and not need this thing to go the way you want it to, then there will be a lot of points of connection and genuine emotional exchange. You just have to be patient.  I could ask my mom an open-ended question like, “What are you going to do this afternoon?”  And a friend of hers who hasn’t spent that much time with her lately, might watch her struggle with that question and just be crushed and think, “Oh my God, I had no idea how much Pam had changed!”  She might get very uncomfortable, get up, tell my mom she loves her, give her a kiss, and then just mourn the loss of her friend while she’s driving away. Or she could realize that my mom now has a really hard time with open-ended questions. And if she sticks around for a half hour, then there might be exchanges and she’ll find points of connection.

DP: When you saw yourself having these conversations when in the editing room, were you thinking that you were really pained at the time or that your face reflected how you actually were?

BW: For me, the painful emotional times have been at a distance. In the editing room, that’s one of the places. It’s something about seeing this time period condensed, seeing her change over time. We were living in San Francisco by then, so I was feeling the physical distance. For me, most of the really intense mourning and crying has all been removed.

DP: Seeing your mom hold your sister’s newborn baby at the end, how did you react to that in the hospital and in the editing room?  She looks engaged in some shots and apart from everybody in others.  So was it a happy day or a sad day?

BW: Both, but it was a really special day. Now we’ve had the experience of our own newborn baby meeting my mother. I remember sitting right next to her and making sure that Dylan was safe because the truth is that I don’t trust her because she has a lot of visual, spatial impairment,. The first thing she says every time I talk to her on the phone is, “How’s your baby?” She doesn’t remember her name, but she knows I just had a baby, and it’s a special thing to her. It amazes me that that’s the first thing out of her mouth.

DP: You end the film saying the film is your way of showing your mother that you love her. But I see it’s also a way of showing that she’s a great mom and that you haven’t forgotten that. Kids generally forget how good their moms are, but you seem to be making a point. You say it a couple of times in the movie, “You’re a phenomenal mom, you’re amazing, we haven’t forgotten.”

BW: Even then, I felt like it’s almost bittersweet because she almost hears it as if I’m talking about her mother, Nana. I don’t know how often I said such things to her before all of this started. I was a loving kid but just showing up is different than saying it. And so that changed a lot. Hugging her, I am reciprocating the incredible affection that she always had. She was an incredibly supportive mom and just showered us with all of that. That was a big part of why we expressed our love.  Also it was because she was so depressed by this whole thing.

DP: The early-onset?

BW: Yeah.  My mom was crushed by the stigma.  So embarrassed, so shamed. And that’s not overstated in her case. So we offered so much love and affection to penetrate that shame.  She had an internal, negative thought process, so we had a need to match that, to have her hear the praise and feel all the love that everyone has for her.

DP: People who watch your mother, who is beautiful and is so smart, loving, and funny, fall in love with her. It wasn’t necessarily your goal, but it’s a happy result.

AF: Because of this film about her, people will start conversations about things that are often not talked about. If people feel comfortable now talking about Alzheimer’s and loss because of this film, then that’s a great thing. And hopefully more people will become aware of the need for research. This is just a first step but it’s an important step.

DP: When did you know to stop filming her?

BW: I thought about that early, and I think we stayed true to what I wanted to do. It’s so inevitable, the end of the game. I knew we wanted to capture something quite special, because we started filming when my mom had the ability to articulate her ideas, and was crushed by the shame and stigma of it. So I thought that it was enough to shoot the process of acceptance and what it was like for our family to unite and care for her.  Everyone knows where we’re going from here, but I do feel like there was closure to one part of this, and I didn’t want to film too much beyond that. I felt like that was enough, and it still shows her in a way that we want to remember. In fact, the last thing that I include in the film is not one of the last things that I shot. I wanted the last image of my mom to still be –

DP: ..beautiful.  Her face is beautiful. And we experience the power of art. Do you feel that’s a genetic thing that’s gone on generationally from Marian to Pam to Banker? And are you grateful?

BW: I am grateful.  I love being able to make movies that resonate with other people. I don’t consider myself a writer and I hate conversation and public speaking, so I feel like the arts has given me a place to feel really confident. I have that creative thing from Marian and I process the world through that. I have that from her.  I also can hear the way my mom thinks and how that manifests in how she talks. I have that from her. So I feel really lucky.

Banker White newsletter, August 26, 2014:

Hey Everyone!

It has been a busy time for Anna and me. If you haven’t heard, our son Oscar James Fitch White officially joined the family last Wed. August 13th. Mama and baby are home, happy and healthy 🙂
We have also been busy working on a short film that is currently featured in The New York Times Opinion Pages: Op-Docs. The film, A Marriage to Remember, is a loving portrait that looks at how Alzheimer’s has affected my parents’ marriage. Included in the piece is footage from both The Genius of Marian and recent footage of Ed & Pam.
We are also thrilled to announce the national broadcast of The Genius of Marian September 8th on POV and would love your help getting the word out! Any shout outs on social or emailing your friends, family and network would be amazing!