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Eloquent documentary 'The Genius of Marian' shows a family's strength against Alzheimer's

This photo provided by PBS shows Banker White, left, and his mother, Pam White, in a scene from the documentary film,

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This photo provided by PBS shows Banker White, left, and his mother, Pam White, in a scene from the documentary film, "The Genius of Marian." THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, PBS, Banker White

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Banker White returned to his Massachusetts family home in 2009 to be a good son to his 61-year-old mother, newly diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

But it was White's skill as a filmmaker that allowed him to do even more: enrich his mom's life; document family history and his father's devotion; and illustrate the disease's toll.

"The Genius of Marian," airing Sept. 8 on PBS' "POV" independent non-fiction film showcase (check local listings), is a delicately etched but unsparing portrait of a woman, Pam White, losing herself to dementia — the same path that was forced upon her mother, New England artist Marian Williams Steele.

The film's title is taken from Pam White's intended book about her mother and the Alzheimer's that ultimately claimed Steele's life in 2001.

But with Pam White's own cognitive abilities diminishing, it is through her son's inquisitive camera that we learn of Steele as a parent and as a driven, successful New England landscape painter and portraitist, and the very different choices that her daughter made.

The film, a surrogate for the unfinished book, was directed by Banker White and co-directed and produced by Anna Fitch, his wife.

When White first left San Francisco to return to Dedham, Massachusetts, he began videotaping his mother and their conversations as a matter of habit, recording his home life as he'd done growing up. It turned out the lens between parent and adult child allowed Pam White to open up about the diagnosis that she otherwise found difficult to discuss.

"Mom starting using the time on camera as a confessional space," Banker White said. "I think she wanted to keep this (Alzheimer's) a secret, but on the other hand felt very proud of the work we were doing."

The experience mirrored her years as a social worker, he said, when she helped others talk about their difficulties.

"The Genius of Marian" is built on an engaging trove of old home movies and photos, including ones showing Steele at work and a young Pam White as a model and actress. It grows in intimacy and pathos with White's growing inability to care for herself and her increasing confusion.

Fitch, who married White after his mom's diagnosis, said she came to have a fuller view of her mother-in-law through organizing the family's archives and the many hours of video shot by her husband.

"Pam's ability to be herself in front of the camera and the connection I felt seeing it was really profound," Fitch said.

How much to reveal of his mom's daily life and condition as the Alzheimer's progressed was a carefully made decision involving his father and siblings, Banker White said.

He said the challenge was "symbolic of what it's like to care for someone going through dementia or any other disease or circumstance that makes it difficult for them to articulate thoughts."

The slow, uneven march of the disease allowed Pam White to review footage of the film and attend its big-screen premiere, her son said, adding, "She had great experiences there."

White still lives at home with her husband, Ed, who now has regular caregivers providing support. Another change: Their isolation from friends has eased.

"Mom's friends, when they heard about it (the diagnosis), it's like their relationship just ended and they didn't know what to do," he said, but seeing the film seems to have helped erase the "stigma and fear" the disease creates. "The Genius of Marian" has screened in some theatres and at film festivals nationally.

Genius of Caring, an interactive website that's companion to the documentary, shares the stories of others facing Alzheimer's to encourage public understanding and awareness of the daunting challenge it represents for many families, Fitch said.

According to the Alzheimer's Association website, more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease, two-thirds of them women, and it is the nation's sixth-leading cause of death.

"It's an extension of the film but in a way that creates a more diverse portrait of what other people experience," Banker White said.




Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at and on Twitter at

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