Family Matters: Documentary Filmmaker Banker White Reimagines the Home Movie

Filmmaker and CCA alumnus Banker White (MFA 1999) has traveled as far as West Africa in his journey to develop communities and tell stories. But his latest work originated rather closer to home. In his documentary The Genius of Marian, due for theatrical release in April 2014, he follows his mother, Pam, as she deals with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

“In 2008, seven years after my grandmother passed away after a battle with Alzheimer’s, my mom, Pam, announced that she was going to write a book about her. Marian Williams Steele was her mother and my grandmother. She was a well-known artist. I painted with her my whole childhood.

“As her only grandkid who identifies as an artist, I knew immediately that I was going to be involved. So I started going back home to Massachusetts twice a year to help my mom with the book and to archive Mana’s paintings.”

Evolving Into a Film Project

But what began as a collaborative mother-son book-writing project evolved into something very different, as Pam herself started to experience signs of dementia, and soon was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“In 2009, I stayed at my parents’ house for three months, just to figure out what was going on,” says White. “It was clear that both my parents needed help. My mom was delusional and had periods of violence. I realized I needed to move home.”

White ended up staying for nearly a year to help out, and, while there, he did what filmmakers do: He turned on his camera.

But it wasn’t until he moved back to San Francisco in early 2010 that he watched his recordings of his family’s story and realized what he had on his hands: a poignant domestic documentary playing out in real time.

“My mom was having trouble writing, so, along making my own film recordings, I coached her in how to make video diaries. It was cathartic for her -- a kind of therapy space. The things that she would say to the camera while alone were totally different from things she’d say to us in person. And she was talking not only about Marian, but about her own experience, as well.”

The Making of a Filmmaker

White was primarily a painter for his undergraduate degree at Middlebury College, where he graduated in 1995 with a double major in fine arts and African studies.

At CCA for his MFA, he studied sculpture and started developing a more multidisciplinary approach, sparked partly by the enthusiasm and energy of two professors: Stephen Goldstine and Mark Thompson.

“Mark Thompson was one of my sculpture teachers. I took graduate seminars with him, and served as his TA. I really love his work. His art projects show total commitment, and he brings that into the classroom. He wasn’t afraid to challenge me, and I liked being able to push up against that.

"There were times when we’d get into it. We might leave class and spend the next half hour talking it out. He was always willing to do that, and was so articulate about how my work was affecting him.”

Stephen Goldstein was the first person White connected with at CCA. “He was the one who introduced me to the school, who convinced me to move to the West Coast. Later I had interdisciplinary seminars with him.

"I’ve never met anyone else who had his ability to see into the person as much as the work. It’s a real skill to show up to a critique and give yourself entirely to that one person. I liked being around his mind and seeing how it worked.”

Art Studio vs. Film Studio

White’s interest in technical learning, collaboration, and a sense of place eventually drew him toward filmmaking. “Documentary filmmaking is definitely different from a studio practice. When you actually start to make the thing, it’s such a social activity. That’s what I like the best. Your ideas are always made much more interesting by the world.

"The editorial process gives you studio time -- time to craft. It’s a really interesting balance. And then, of course, there’s the triumphant moment when you make it public.”

The Genius of Marian premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2013. In April 2014 it will be theatrically released across the country, thanks to crowdsourced film distribution platform TUGG. It allows anyone to book the film at a theater near them. And it will be broadcast nationally in September 2014 on PBS as part of the POV series of indie nonfiction documentaries.

In Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, the film will likely get a weekend run, says White, and in Boston there has already been a week-long screening at the Museum of Fine Arts.

“They only pick a couple of documentary films a year for this, so it’s an honor, and there were big crowds all seven nights. It’s partly the local angle and the use of Marian’s paintings in the film. Some of Marian’s contemporaries have work in the museum’s collection. And now, thanks to the success of these screenings, Marian has had one of her works acquired as well!”

Educating Audiences

Concurrently, White is focused on his family’s educational campaign, entitled The Genius of Caring, that accompanies the film. It combines community screenings, educational tools on subjects such as the early detection of Alzheimer’s, short film productions profiling other caregivers, and partnerships with caregiving organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association and the National Alliance for Caregiving. The campaign will enable White to maximize the footage and interviews that didn’t make the final cut.

“Everyone in my family has been so affected by what’s happening to my mother, obviously, but it’s interesting how we all bring a different skill set to the table. My brother is an incredible writer. My sister is an experienced educator. My father is a loyal husband and caregiver. I’m a filmmaker and a creative thinker about what it means to run a campaign. Alzheimer’s will be a part of our lives for the rest of our lives, and this campaign is a long-term commitment.”