This has been a busy year for artist and filmmaker Banker White (2008 Film/Video). On September 8, PBS will air his documentary The Genius of Marian, a portrait of his family’s struggle to deal with his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. As he continues to work on his Creative Capital project, WeOwnTV—which helps young filmmakers in Freetown, Sierra Leone hone their craft—Banker has experienced firsthand a recent outbreak of the Ebola virus. We decided to check in with Banker to get his thoughts on his upcoming documentary, and what’s going on in Sierra Leone.
Alex Teplitzky: The Genius of Marian follows Pam White, your mother, as she begins to write a book about her own mother, Marian. A year after beginning the book, Pam is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and so the film picks up where Pam’s book may not be able to finish. As a filmmaker, do you see yourself as creating almost a prosthetic form of memory which empowers people to remember?
Banker White: Well, when I pressed record for the first time for this project that was absolutely the intention, but it was done for very personal reasons. My mother’s book project was the point of departure, the deep desire to memorialize someone we love and to connect with the difficult and complex emotions that surround losing them.
I moved back to the Boston area in 2009 with my mother and father to help out just after her official diagnosis, and working on the book was our daily activity. We looked at old pictures, watched old movies, and talked about and relived many memories. I also learned a lot about my mother’s life that I never knew—mostly in the details. I knew her folks were divorced while she was in high school, but never talked with her at length about it. Right after my mother’s diagnosis she was really paralyzed and depressed by the shame and she never talked about her own dementia, but this daily activity seemed to open her up. Talking with me and doing video diary entries became a kind of confessional for her. The project grew to be more about her own diagnosis and how it was affecting our family.
I started interviewing my father and sibling, shooting more observational footage of what we were going through. I also started showing the footage to people outside the family. My wife and producing partner, Anna Fitch—who at the time was my girlfriend and who had never met my mother—saw the footage and was incredibly moved. She said it immediately triggered emotions and memories related to her relationship with her parents. My mother was a gifted social worker in her professional life and spent a lifetime helping people open up and communicate about things that are difficult to talk about. It is clear to me now that what our film is doing is continuing her work—so I like the idea that the film is a prosthetic for memory, and one that uses that access to be present with the complexity of our emotions.
Alex: In a similar way that The Genius of Marian enhances Pam White’s memory (in various forms), your Creative Capital project, WeOwnTV, sets out to facilitate expression for men and women living in Sierra Leone. How did you come about this project?
Banker: In 2002, I started working on the documentary film Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars together with Zach Niles and Chris Velan. It was my first film and it gathered quite a response. It won more than a dozen international film festival awards and has been viewed by millions via broadcast television in North America, Latin America, Europe, Japan, Korea and throughout Africa. Experiencing the inspiration this story has brought to the people of Sierra Leone and war-torn communities around the world, we put together a media training and storytelling curriculum to bring back to Sierra Leone—the idea was to give them the training, provide access to equipment and give them a platform to speak loudly and clearly for themselves.
We launched our first program in Sierra Leone in 2009 by facilitating a month-long filmmaking workshop for 18 young men and women just outside the capital city Freetown. Workshop participants were selected not based on technical skills or prior experience, but on the enthusiasm, eloquence and sense of purpose each of them exhibited during the interview process. Many participants had never worked with a camera or touched a computer and many had not finished school, but they each demonstrated an incredible strength and resolve in overcoming tragic circumstances.
The aspiring filmmakers came from all areas of the country: the diamond-mining district of Kono, the dusty small town of Makeni (a rebel stronghold during the war) and from the hardscrabble slums of Freetown. It was an amazing experience for students and teachers alike and the project has continued to grow in scope each year.
In 2010, we signed a lease on a building and officially opened the WeOwnTV media center. Today five years after WeOwnTV our first workshop, the team in Sierra Leone has grown to become one of the most well respected production crews in the country. They have worked on major international productions, including recently, the feature documentary, Girl Rising and the 4-hour PBS series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, a series documenting the trans-Atlantic slave trade hosted by Harvard professor, Henry Lewis Gates, Jr.
In 2012, we officially formed a 501c3 non-profit that now supports the center, which operates as an African-owned, African-run organization in Sierra Leone. We continue to provide ongoing education media training programs at the center and our program graduates have gone on to staff other programs in sierra Leone. Today WeOwnTV is regarded as an impressive collective of the best and the brightest filmmakers, musicians and young media professionals in the region. Many WeOwnTV titles, which have been celebrated in international film festivals, have the potential to generate additional revenue for the filmmakers and the collective. We are currently working on a distribution strategy and building audiences for their creative, engaging, high-quality independent media produced by African filmmakers.
Video: Achievements WeOwnTV has made over the years
Alex: Recently, Sierra Leone has been the epicenter of a horrible outbreak of the Ebola virus. How has your project been affected by this medical emergency?
Banker: This is all we have talked about for the last couple months. The WeOwnTV team feels very much that we as filmmakers, storytellers and media professionals have an important role to play and they have been working tirelessly on a media campaign to help combat the dangerous misinformation that is prevalent. Here is a link to the campaign they are working on together with the Sierra Leone Film Council, local television and radio and they have recently been approached by the office of the president to join a media campaign task force.
As someone who has worked for over a decade on various projects that impact how we in the West view the continent, I hope the recent media attention does not oversimplify peoples’ understanding of what is happening on the ground. I hope the narrative that is spun is that the outbreak is being caused simply by lack of local government response and African “superstition.” There is dangerous misinformation out there and many Africans, like the filmmakers of WeOwnTV, have been working tirelessly, with local government and non-profit efforts to help spread important knowledge to quarantine infected individuals and contain the outbreak. All countries affected are woefully under resourced with inadequate health systems, etc. Many of the international workers who have been on the front line were already in the country and not sent there in response. So I am happy to see that it has now caught the attention of the international community and hopefully increased resources (though they are arriving a bit late) will help right the ship.
Alex: As you stated, one of the great obstacles hindering medical workers trying to stymie the outbreak is misinformation and superstition in Ebola. There have been instances of musicians creating informational songs to play on the radio to stop this misinformation from spreading. Have you worked on similar projects?
Banker: The Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, as a band, recorded many songs and led community engagement programs that included town hall meeting like events during the UN repatriation. They wanted respected community members who had been back to Sierra Leone to report on what they had seen there. It was about establishing trust and allowing for an open dialogue around fears many had about returning to Sierra Leone. And there are overlaps with this program and what we are working on now in response to the Ebola outbreak. People are scared and they do not trust what they are being told. Songs and PSAs produced in local languages are easier to both understand and to listen to. Our videos are being produced in eight local languages. Similarly we are making the material available to partners who will use them in community viewings that invite discussion and dialogue.
And I don’t think this is too much of a stretch to bring this question all the way back to The Genius of Marian project. We are launching an engagement campaign called the Genius of Caring, which is comprised of a series of short educational films, an innovative online story-sharing project and an educational curriculums. this project is also about creating trust and making people feel safe, included and heard. Alzheimer’s is often a long and isolating disease process. And for the more than 15 million caregivers who support loved ones with the disease, the isolation can be extremely debilitating at a time when you need extra support. In advance of the PBS broadcast we will be launching the site and campaign.