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Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | “The Carrier” Director Maggie Betts

Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "The Carrier" Director Maggie Betts

This lyrical documentary follows Mutinta, a dutiful and loving 28-year-old mother living in the landlocked African country of Zambia with her polygamous husband. Polygamy is still a legal and common practice in the country. When their humble farming life is infiltrated by the rapidly spreading HIV/AIDS epidemic, the family is shaken by the implications. In Zambia it has been estimated that more than 250 people each day are infected with the disease and fewer than 15 percent of adults know their HIV status. When Mutinta, now pregnant, learns that she too is HIV positive, she sets out to keep the child virus-free and break the cycle of transmission. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]

“The Carrier”
World Documentary Competition
Director: Maggie Betts
Producers: Maggie Betts, Ben Selkow, Joedan Okun, Benjamin Prager
Editor: Flavia de Souza
Director of Photography: Kat Westergaard
Executive Producer: Roland Betts
Composer: Daniel Miller, David Della Santa

Responses courtesy of “The Carrier” director Maggie Betts.

Unexpected…

Ever since I was little I’ve always been obsessed with movies. They were always my primary outlet for escape and fantasy. I don’t remember how old I was when I first started to day dream about one day directing a film myself. I know I thought about it for a long time, but was always so intimidated by what a mammoth task it all seemed to be; and, frankly, I’m scared of failure. Looking back, I think I was also just waiting for the right moment and, really, the right story that could propel me past all the fears and self doubt. Oddly enough, I never really saw myself making a documentary. I was much more interested in narrative film until this particular idea and project for a documentary just took over.

A personal story…

Somewhere around 2004 I started traveling a lot to Africa with a very specific interest in the HIV/AIDS pandemic and its impact. I’d had a lot of personal experiences with AIDS in America, as my mom had lost two of her brothers to the disease when I was a teenager, so I think I found myself drawn towards this large scale global problem in a very intimate and visceral way. My more humanitarian and philanthropic connections to these issues began to deepen. I had never seen that part of my life as something that could also be connected to my creative aspirations. I saw the two things as very separate, like two completely different sides of my life. At some point in my travels and ongoing education about AIDS, I started to learn about PMTCT (Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission.) Mainly, I learned that there were anonymous HIV positive mothers all across the continent, all fighting this desperate battle against the wrath of their own disease, in an effort to protect their babies. It struck me that there was something very profound about that. It was really the theme of maternal love and sacrifice, pushed to such an impossible extreme, that first inspired me and made me think of the possibilities. Still, it wasn’t until a of couple years later, when we were on our first scout trip, that I met the woman who then became the film’s protagonist, Mutinta Mweemba. Everything was just a vague idea or impression of what the movie could be before I met her. Then the whole story suddenly became her and everything she symbolized to me.

Making it cinematic…

Given my lifelong love of narrative movies, I would say my primary approach was to make a documentary that had a fluid narrative and felt very cinematic. I wanted to make something that was so obviously real life and a doc, but still decorated itself in all the more familiar trappings and techniques of narrative movie making. This would make the film feel a little more ‘relatable’ and easier for an audience to give itself over to. I also felt that this was a good way to deal with the difficultly of the subject matter. Given that there have been many documentaries already made about AIDS, and there’s probably so much fatigue and resistance to the topic in general, I really wanted do something that seemed much more accessible on a human level. The specific look and style of the cinematography, use of narrative editing and classical scoring all played a part in this approach. But it was really the beautiful humanity of its main characters, the way they seem like ‘someone you could know’ or even some part of your own experiences, that ultimately made the film feel as emotionally immediate and ‘already understood’ as I think it does.

Working in a foreign land…

The greatest challenges we faced in developing the project were mainly the inherent difficulties that come with trying to make a film some 7,500 miles away, in rural Zambia, where none of the crew, including myself, had ever been before and did not speak the language. Even as there was such a wonderful sense of adventure to it all, there were also a gazillion hurdles we had to face and overcome everyday. For that, though, I really have to thank the film’s extraordinary producer, Ben Selkow.

A funny conversation…

There are so many crazy stories that took place during the course of our shoot. I think it’s pretty much a given that a lot of hilarious little incidents are going to occur, when you take an all American, and totally New York centric, film crew and place them in the middle of rural Zambia. There’s one particular moment I’ll always remember, which involved a conversation I had with one of our subjects, Moses Mweemba. Moses, who’s the patriarch and grandfather of the Mweemba family, is an 82 year old man who’s basically lived his entire life in the tiny little farming village of Keemba (where the film takes place). There was one afternoon when I happened to be sitting with him and our translator and he turned to me and started chatting. He began by saying, via the translator, “Excuse me young lady, but you seem like a very learned and educated person with lots of knowledge about the world and how it works. So do you mind if I ask you a question?” I said, again via translator, “Sure, you can ask me anything.” He said, “Well this is question actually involves something I’ve been puzzling over most of my life, but have never really gotten a straight answer on. I’m hoping you’ll be able to finally clear it up for me ….” He then turned up his head towards the sky and looked for a moment, before he continued, “I assume you’re aware of all those big puffy white things you sometimes see in the sky, aren’t you?” I said, “You mean the clouds? Yes, I’m aware of them.” He said, “Well, all I really want to know is, what exactly are they? Are they more like mountains or more like smoke?” I’d never been asked anything like that in my life before and still smile every time I think of how genuine and sincere his curiosity was.

Future plans…

I’m always exploring and tinkering with a million different concepts and little pictures in my head for different movies. I think it’s one of those things where you really just have to wait for the exact right thing to kind of twinkle and glimmer out and announce itself to you. For all my various ideas and little imaginings on plots and premises, it’s really people and their lives and what they go through that touches me the most. I imagine I just have to wait for someone to grip my heart in the same way that this film’s protagonists, Mutinta and her family, did. As soon as that happens I’m sure I’ll be making another movie.

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