Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Maggie Betts--'The Carrier'

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 12 through September 1 in New York City and August 19 through September 8 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Maggie Betts, director/producer of The Carrier.

Synopsis: Told through the eyes of an increasingly empowered heroine, The Carrier is a powerful and moving portrait of an unconventional family, set against the backdrop of the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Zambia. This lyrical film follows Mutinta Mweemba, a 28-year-old subsistence farmer living in a polygamous marriage. After learning she is HIV-positive and pregnant, Mutinta sets out to keep her unborn child virus-free and break the cycle of transmission.

 The Carrier

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Maggie Betts: I don't know that I ever really "got started" in documentary filmmaking; it's more just something I woke up one day and found myself doing. I'd spent a large part of my adult life traveling to various countries in Africa, and was always very interested in the plight of HIV and its impact upon the continent. As this interest grew, I also began to learn more about PMTCT (Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission)--particularly all these incredibly brave young women and mothers who were all fighting so anonymously and in total isolation to try and save their babies from their disease. It just struck me at some point what a valid and important topic this might be to explore in a documentary--how hopeful it was. I'm also a very artistic person who'd always dreamed of making a film. I suppose it all just kind of gelled in a weird way, and somehow I ended up making this documentary.

 

IDA: What inspired you to make The Carrier?

MB: In addition to wanting to support this extraordinary goal of soon seeing a new HIV-free generation in Africa; my initial inspiration for the film had a lot to do with motherhood, with just exploring this idea of maternal love and sacrifice, pushed to such an unthinkable extreme. And it was mostly just a very visceral and emotional type of pull towards something for me; it wasn't at all
academic. I often thought, "What would I do if I was pregnant and there was a disease in my body that could somehow harm my baby? What would that be like and feel like and how could anybody possibly be strong enough to get through that?" Still, this was all very hazy and theoretical--until I finally met Mutinta, the lead protagonist in the story, as well as a very beautiful young mother who was actually living that experience. There was and is something so transcendent
about her--the way she handled herself, carried herself and got herself through. So Mutinta soon became the film's most motivating and enduring inspiration for me.

 

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

MB: I think the greatest challenge in making the film had to do with the fact that it all takes place in a small community in rural Zambia. Just the experience of spending months at a time living and shooting in a country so far away, in a culture so radically different from our own. It was also very hot, and we had to endure an entire month of the rainy season--these torrential downpours that would come in out of nowhere and totally ruin our shoot for the day. So that
wasn't always easy. Being constantly surrounded by people living and struggling with HIV/AIDS and having to look it so directly in the face every day was also frequently very sad and difficult for me emotionally. There was so much loss and death everywhere. Everybody in the community was in some way affected by AIDS, so sooner or later it really starts to affect you too. Still, I was so
continuously moved by how resilient and heroic the people were. They were such fighters, so determined to overcome every obstacle. I think ultimately that also made whatever obstacles we as a crew were facing--all the little daily crises that come up in the course of a shoot--seem quite minimal and insignificant in context. 

 

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

MB: My vision for the film changed dramatically throughout every stage of the process. From pre-production through shooting through post, the story was so constantly in flux and constantly evolving, but in a way that's also the most fun part of documentaries. I think the most significant shift took place when we first arrived in Zambia, and were scouting and interviewing different women who might serve as the main protagonist of the film. When we first met Mutinta,
she was with her husband and they gradually informed us that there were also two other wives in their family. Telling a story about an HIV-positive woman who'd become pregnant and was trying to save her baby was one thing. Adding the fact that she was also in a polygamous marriage and one of three wives was another thing entirely and at first very overwhelming and scary to me. I really
had to reshape the entire narrative in my head, just to somehow make room for and accommodate this reality. But in the end I do think it made the story that much richer, so much more layered and complex.

 

IDA:  As you've screened The Carrier--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

MB: We've screened the film a great deal, both at other festivals as well as in more intimate, "friends and family" type settings. And in general I've just been very touched by how strongly and emotionally people seem to react. It means so much, more than I can even express, to see how people really do connect with and feel for Mutinta and her experience, and often in such intense and personal ways of their own. I suppose the thing that's also surprised me,
and through so many different people's reactions, is how indignantly they feel towards the husband, Abarcon. Among other things, the film focuses a lot on this evolving relationship between its two main subjects, Mutinta and Abarcon, who are husband and wife. Through the course of it you also learn about a lot of very challenging, sometimes unspeakable things that the husband has done to
his wife. For myself, I think just from knowing him and spending so much time studying and editing him, I'd somehow come to see him as very complicated person, privately struggling with his own shortcomings and even his own cruelty, so maybe not necessarily "all bad." I thought others might see him that way too and possibly find something redeeming in him, but most audiences
just haven't. So it hasn't really bothered as much as surprised me, how absolutely indignant people feel towards him.

 

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

MB: I like Frederick Wiseman a lot and Albert Maysles, whom I was even lucky enough to meet and talk with a bit during the course of making my film. What inspires me most about their work is just the astounding patience they bring to it all. It's their ability to just wait and observe and
let "the moment" happen on its own, to not force or manipulate things too much. It's so much easier said than done and takes a tremendous amount of discipline--a tremendous amount of faith, really. But often the "moment found" is so much more surprising and beautiful than anything you could've ever dreamed or created. Both those directors are a great testament to that and I really admire their mastery.

The Carrier will be screening August 19
through 25 at the IFC Center in New York City and August 26 through September 1 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2011 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for The Carrier in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for The Carrier in Los Angeles, click here.