When the Tribeca Film Festival was running this year, I knew I had to go to at least one screening. I poured over the options and made my decision: I would go see the documentary The Genius of Marian. Chief among the reasons for my choice was that I felt somewhat connected to the subject matter.
A fitting tribute to mothers, The Genius of Marian is a beautiful new documentary about a son chronicling his mother’s struggles with Alzheimer’s. Pam White has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Her mother, artist Marian Steele, also suffered from the disease before her death.
The Genius of Marian functions on two levels: on one, there is Pam working on a book about her mother, a process with which her son, director Banker White, helps her; on the other, White makes the film as a tribute to his own mother, chronicling her struggle with the disease.
My grandmother suffered from dementia the last few years of her life. Although I know that Alzheimer’s and dementia aren’t quite the same thing, they are similar enough that I always feel as though I sort of understand Alzheimer’s stories.
I was a preteen when my grandmother started to have her problems. I remember what it was like for my mom to watch her mother slowly lose touch with the real world. Towards the end, my mom observed that my grandmother wasn’t really suffering; she had created her own world. It was those around her, who knew what she had been like before dementia, who were quietly suffering.
The Genius of Marian drives home this heartbreaking idea. The film explores of the past lives of Marian and Pam through a mix of interviews, home movie footage, and Marian’s paintings, showing how they were both vibrant and creative people before Alzheimer’s. Again, this made me think of my own grandmother, who was a creative person in her own right, making beautiful cakes and flower arrangements for special occasions.
To be clear, the film demonstrates that the essence of Pam’s spirited personality still shines through the Alzheimer’s, but she is shown to become increasingly dependent on those around her.
Alzheimer’s and dementia affect the person with the disease but also the family who has to observe a loved one go through it. There are a few instances in The Genius of Marian during which Pam denies that she has Alzheimer’s – or denies that anything is wrong with her. She does not want to accept that she is slowly losing control. She fights against taking her medication and against getting a caregiver.
In these instances portrayed, the White family reacts with understanding patience. Particularly moving is the portrait of the devotion of Pam’s husband to helping care for her. Eventually, the family must hire a caregiver to help, a move that seems to be working towards the end of the film.
I remember when my family had to hire caregivers to help, beginning with a woman who would come a few times a week and eventually leading to a live-in helper. These people became so much a part of our lives that they felt like part of the family.
The Genius of Marian is not only a portrait of Alzheimer’s but also a portrait of family. It deftly shows how a disease like Alzheimer’s can bring a family together. And it particularly demonstrates the beauty of parent-child relationships.
The whole film was borne out of a daughter’s wish to pay tribute to her mother and a son’s wish to pay tribute to his mother. Banker White turns the camera on his mother and the result is wholly loving and beautiful.
As such, there is no objectivity in The Genius of Marian; it is a personal and very subjective examination of Alzheimer’s and family. But this is precisely why it works so well as a film. Rarely do you see families with the courage to put themselves in a film so honestly. The Genius of Marian demonstrates the power of sharing our personal experiences.
At the post-screening Q&A, director Banker White explained to us that several medical and nursing programs, as well as other organizations, have expressed desire to use The Genius of Marian as an educational tool because it shows a different side of Alzheimer’s, one that might inspire hope.
If you have the chance, I urge you to see The Genius of Marian. I cannot help but give it my highest recommendation.