A Mother’s Love
Filmmaker Maggie Betts Documents Life with HIV in The Carrier
by V. Anderson
All too often, documentaries employ a dry visual style, tediously conveying information, leaving the viewer distanced and detached. Beautiful and engaging, The Carrier brings the viewer closer. Told through the unique voices of its subjects, this documentary adopts a narrative style, following Mutinta Mweemba, an HIV-positive Zambian woman, from the latter part of her pregnancy through the birth of her fourth child. In the introductory sequence of the film, Mutinta poignantly says, “As a child, I always dreamed of growing up into someone perfect, but I failed. It didn’t turn out that way.” The film not only addresses issues related to HIV/AIDS, specifically prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT), but also, perhaps as a consequence of an achievement in filmmaking, it explores gender dynamics, family, and female empowerment. It is at once heartbreaking and hopeful, leaving the viewer wanting to know more about the family, the issue, and inspiring the viewer to take action.
Maggie Betts, a first-time director, discussed her inspiration for making the film, the shooting, and what’s next for her in relation to the cause.
V. Anderson: Your film focuses on the mission statement: To see an HIV Free Generation. Is there any other reason you were particularly drawn to the cause?
Maggie Betts: It was a very slow thing. When I was a teenager, I had two uncles who passed away….My mother was really affected by it—they were two of her brothers. One was homosexual and in the closet, the other had been a drug user and they were very sick and I was quite ashamed. This is the 1990s, and as a teenager, I didn’t want to go see them. I thought it was “yucky and dirty and gross” that they had AIDS. I felt very badly about how I was then. They died, and then later I thought these people who loved me died…Then when I got older I met [the former head of U.S. UNICEF], and we were talking about Africa and AIDS. He started talking about people dying alone, twenty-eight million people dying alone, without any larger world concern and attention. He started saying things like that, and then I started feeling bad about the way that I had been in my personal life.
He suggested that I go to South Africa. I was very, very moved. At this clinic there were lines and lines of very sick-looking people waiting for treatment. I just thought it was so unfair. I remember they said that the clinic closed at four. So the people sitting there had come from really far places and were desperate, desperate for treatment, and they were telling us it was going to close at four and the people were going to have to walk back home and come back the next day…and so it just kind of evolved from there.
Why did you choose PMTCT as the arc of the film?
When I heard about PMTCT it was so hopeful and pure and so unmired in all the things that make people uncomfortable about HIV. It’s positive…and it’s essentially focused on a mother’s love, which is an unimpeachable idea and thing to support. It brings you into the larger discussion of HIV/AIDS in Africa through something that’s so non-threatening, and you couldn’t come up with a reason why you wouldn’t want to support a mom who doesn’t want her baby to be born sick and die.
The film really succeeds in personalizing the virus. With so many African countries deeply affected by HIV/AIDS, how did you choose Zambia and the Mweemba family for the film?
I had travelled with UNICEF over the past four or five years, maybe once or twice a year, to visit their various countries in Africa and see their programs and work with children and PMTCT, and so I contacted them obviously first when I decided to make a film.
Zambia’s quite progressive in regards to PMTCT, and UNICEF had started a couple satellite PMTCT programs there that were flourishing and the administrative power was very supportive. And, for the sake of beauty, and feeling, and atmosphere, I wanted a rural environment.
When we went on our first scout trip, we were there for twelve days going around to different doctors, going back and forth to the clinic, going to hospitals, looking for a woman who was HIV-positive, somewhere between four to six months pregnant, and obviously willing to participate…there were five women [who qualified], but only three showed up, and quite ironically, or a bit symbolically, they were all named Mutinta, which in this area means “change in pattern.” I thought this was beautiful, sort of like changing the pattern of HIV infection/passing on infection….
So [Mutinta] came with her husband [Abarcon]. I didn’t want to make it about a polygamous marriage because I thought it would layer on this different discussion topic that I thought may be distracting from the main idea of an HIV-free generation or PMTCT, but you could just tell there was something going on with them.
Then we went to their house the next day and started filming her, and she was so vibrant on film, even when she wasn’t talking. It was immediately recognizable that she could communicate a lot by doing very little on film.
How long did it take to shoot?
We shot it from October 2009 to April 2010, but the filming was only four months. We went in four different trips, sometimes for a month, sometimes for three weeks.
Often in documentary filmmaking, it can be difficult to gain the trust of your subjects. Yet even with the language barrier, you were able to achieve a level of trust that resonates vividly onscreen. How were you able get the Mweemba family to open up to you, especially on such a sensitive issue?
It wasn’t overnight. It’s very difficult to describe what it’s like to be in a culture where they don’t have film and you have a film camera, because they don’t have that self-consciousness and awareness. They know that they’re participating in something like a fairy tale or a story, where once it’s told people will know more
about them…but they don’t know much beyond that. In [Mutinta’s] environment she thought that her opinion didn’t matter at all. But I think that human nature is that if you’re carrying things that are weighing heavy on your heart and somebody asks you once, twice, and a third time, then you’re like, “Thank you so much for asking me that.”
Brenda, the first wife, is an incredibly strong presence in the film, even though she is seen and heard from very little. Her impact is greatest (and most heartbreaking), for both the Mweemba family and the viewer, after her hospitalization and death. What factors contributed to your decision to include her in this way?
I only met her once outside the hospital. The film was made over the course of four trips, and…by the time we came back she was in the hospital and it wasn’t good. Apparently she had been in and out before, and then she died on Christmas right after the third trip so basically I never saw her well, except for that one shot….It was the only shot of her alive and healthy and not wasting in the hospital, but she was a huge presence in her absence because of what her situation meant to all the others. I think they’d kind of been, not in denial, but they all had HIV and they took their medicine and were active and physical and more or less full-bodied, and so her presence became so profound around the house even though she wasn’t there, and her name carried so much weight.
You also captured the incredible loneliness that the subjects felt as a result of the virus. Why were you drawn to making loneliness a prominent theme in the film?
I thought it was so fascinating again about a culture that doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on sharing your emotions. When Brenda was there, Mutinta and Brenda used to talk about how they were scared. I think that’s one of the things about the impact of her death, is that there was nobody to talk to anymore.
The husband, Abarcon, becomes more rounded and likeable throughout the film as the viewer slowly comes to realize what’s going on internally for him. A big part of this is understanding his relationship with his mother. How did you get him to open up about this?
When the first wife died, although he wouldn’t admit it, my sense was he was so profoundly guilt-ridden that a lot of stuff was surfacing for him emotionally. I wouldn’t describe him as a very emotional man, but clearly he was deeply affected by it.
It’s a very Freudian idea that you’re kind of eternally a child looking for a parent and that your romantic choices are informed in some way as a reaction to that. And in Zambia, where he would have no idea what implications his answer might [have], I asked him if he thought he might be looking for a mother and he’s like, “Yeah, I think that’s it.” Really, just quite clear: “Yeah that’s exactly what I think is going on with me.”
The film is told from the perspective of a woman in a polygamous marriage whose husband continues to have sexual relationships outside the marriage. In spite of this, the wives exhibit a deep commitment as wives and mothers. Did you intend for gender to so strongly inform the issue in the context of your film?
It wasn’t meant to be so deeply involved in topics of gender dynamics and [women’s] issues….I do know in this place the women just seemed much more responsible, much more concerned, much more proactive, and the men were very casual about something that I thought seemed way serious to be so casual about, and I couldn’t figure that out. I don’t know why the husband doesn’t feel like he’s done a terrible, terrible criminal thing by infecting so many women with a terminal illness.
Where are you finding the most support for this film?
There’s a big movement right now to see the first HIV-free generation and we’ve been working with RED, who have this wonderful campaign called [Attainable Goal of a Generation of Babies Born] HIV-Free by 2015, and the film is sort of a metaphor for that. The family is meant to represent a larger entity and the renewal and that you can start again and start fresh….And so any and all NGO groups that we’ve interacted with that are focused on an HIV-free generation, which is something I’m really excited about and really believe in, have responded well and wanted to connect with [the film].
It seems to resonate strongly with groups that are interested in sharing and discussing gender dynamics….It became really valid to me to see this one woman with all the obstacles that were in her way…just because she was a woman….So women, and women’s rights groups, and activist groups seem to respond to that a lot.
Can you talk a little bit about the Dried Blood Spot test and PMTCT? It was fascinating to see Mutinta’s baby’s test travelling in an envelope on a woman’s lap on a long bus ride to the lab.
Yeah, and that’s the latest advancement, because previously that lab, which was quite nice and high tech and at the university in Lusaka used to test the baby eighteen months after it was born because that’s when the baby had it’s own antibodies. If you test a baby with a regular HIV test, it will always be testing the mother’s antibodies if it’s too young, and you’ll always get a positive or false positive if the mother’s already positive. So this is a special test, where they separate the mother’s own antibodies from the baby’s antibodies.
Screening in high-profile film festivals—DocuWeeks, Tribeca Film Festival and Zurich Film Festival—certainly reaches a wide audience and sparks awareness. But beyond the screening dates, what’s your plan to hold viewers’ attention to the issue? What are the next steps in furthering your mission?
In Zurich [we did] a special thing with Doctors Without Borders, a screening and panel discussion….Myself, I’m too small as an individual. Our goal is, we’re at the early stages of this, but our goal is to partner with organizations that are really doing the most amazing pioneering work in regards to PMTCT and helping to create an HIV-free generation. I hope to have the message extend beyond the moment of being a really good movie or interesting issue.
With Maggie Betts’s passion and dedication, surely the impact of The Carrier will endure. When I asked her about her next project, Maggie indicated that she was open to documentary or fiction, as well as a variety of subjects. If her first film is any indication of her abilities in both genres, then viewers have a promising next film to discover.
For more information, log on to www.thecarrierfilm.com.
V. Anderson holds an MFA in Film from New York University. She has worked in India, the Caribbean, and the U.S., and is currently based in New York City.