What it’s about: The Genius of Marian is an intimate portrait of my family in the wake of
my mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The film explores the tragedy of
Alzheimer’s disease, the power of art and the meaning of family.
About the filmmaker: I’m a creative hardworking guy who loves his mom.
What else do you want audiences to know? The Genius of Marian began as a series of informal recorded
conversations with my mom in the months after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis
in 2009. She had begun writing a memoir called “The Genius of Marian”
about her own mother (my grandmother), Marian Williams Steele. Marian
was a celebrated painter. She was my mentor in art and in life. In 2001,
at the age of 89, Marian died of Alzheimer’s disease.
Soon after my mom started writing the memoir about Marian, she began to
struggle with typing and other mental tasks. To help her continue the
project, I started filming our conversations. For the next three years, I
recorded both the big events and the small details of my family’s
I approached this project both as a loving son and as an observer. A
patient approach toproduction has helped me capture the essence of my
family’s story. I’ve shared warmth and intimacy in conversations with my
mother, laid bare our family’s challenges in caring for her and allowed
myself to feel all of the complicated emotions that come with loving
someone who is slowly succumbing to a disease like Alzheimer’s.
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. I know she would be
proud that this film might be used to perpetuate that legacy.
While The Genius of Marian began as a personal project to honor and
connect with my mother in the wake of her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I
believe the resulting film will resonate with anyone who is reconciling
complex feelings related to aging and loss. It is from this place that I
know we have created something special.
What were your biggest challenges? I didn’t plan on making this film; it was more my reaction to the
situation our family found itself in. Deciding what to make “public” and
how to present the story were the biggest challenges in making this
film. Every decision was made considering how the film and filming
process was affecting the family. I wanted to show my mom with dignity,
but also present an honest portrait. I also wanted to balance the
details of my own family’s situation with the more poetic or emotional
reactions to those situations, making sure the audience had room to have
their own experience of the story.
What would you like Tribeca audiences to come away with after seeing your film?
place often shrouded in shame and confusion. I want to help people who
receive an Alzheimer’s diagnosis (or any terminal disease diagnosis) see
it not as a paralyzing death sentence, but instead an invitation to
re-prioritize—to reach out and connect and feel and process complicated
emotions. I want the film to be a conversation starter.
Did any specific films inspire you?
The Fisher King. I love this fantastic, magical take on the experience
of mental illness. The film is also a beautiful exploration of personal
relationships and reconciling with the past.
What do you have in the works? In addition to getting The Genius of Marian out into the world,
producing complimentary educational films and developing a related
interactive story space called Memory Mosaic, we are working on several
other film projects.
My wife/producing partner and I are working on a documentary film with a
magical realism feel called “Yo” about Yolanda Shea, an older woman who
is not what she appears. We are also developing a hybrid documentary
called African Ninja with filmmakers from WeOwnTV (www.weowntv.org), a
film collective in Freetown, Sierra Leone that I founded in 2009.
African Ninja is a kung-fu comedy that explores national identity,
Chinese investment in Africa and the environmental impact of commercial
fishing through the story of a modern day African super hero.
Where did you learn how to make movies? I went to Middlebury College (BA) and California College of the Arts
(MFA). I started out as a visual artist – a painter, sculptor and
multimedia artist – before I started to make films professionally. But,
inspired by my father and my grandmother (Marian), who were both avid
family archivists, I have been behind the camera creating and filming
from a very young age.
What did you edit on? Final Cut Pro 7
invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films,
including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re
doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013
Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on April 17 for the latest profiles.