Tribeca Film Festival 2013: The Genius of Marian

max_600_600_the-genius-of-marianThe Genius of Marian is a moving personal account of the effects of early-onset Alzheimer's disease on a loving, vivacious wife and mother. Filmed by her son Banker White, the filmmaker behind Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars, the audience follows Pam White shortly after her diagnosis in 2009 and over the next three years. At first, The Genius of Marian was meant to be a tribute to Pam's mother Marian Williams Steele who had passed away in 2001 from Alzheimer's disease. As the project progressed, though, it became a tribute from Banker White to his mother Pam.

For me, The Genius of Marian was an extremely difficult film to watch. Much like the other Tribeca feature Run & Jump, it deals with how family dynamics and relationships change when one of their members is dealing with a deteriorating mental condition. Unlike Run & Jump, though, the people in The Genius of Marian are real. Pam is real. Her children and her friends are real. Her ever-patient and loving husband Ed is real, and that makes the film all the more affecting.

The film covers a three year period. Three years doesn't seem like a long time, but it is shocking how much changes in Pam's life in that time, especially for someone like myself who hasn't seen the effects of Alzheimer's first-hand. White did a good job choosing footage that visually represented Pam's struggles with the disease. In one scene, she picks up her coat and tries to put it on. At first, it looks like she will manage to get the coat on, but after a few minutes of struggling with the sleeves, her anger and frustration get the better of her. Eventually, she gives up, and Ed helps her put her arms through the sleeves of the coat.

In the first few years, it seems like Ed can handle the day-to-day care for Pam, and both of them prefer him to be her caregiver. Pam doesn't like the idea of strangers in the house, and Ed sees it as his duty as her husband to care for her. Nearly every family is faced with this question at some point, the question of accepting outside help in caring for a loved one. When my grandfather's health deteriorated later in life, my grandmother cared for him by herself for as long as she could. Unfortunately, it is difficult if not impossible to maintain a relationship as a spouse while acting as a nurse or caregiver, and Ed's optimism and love of life wears down. In a moment of weakness, he loses his temper over a boating trip and goes from “shucks” and “darn” to yelling in frustration, “F--- it, we'll just sit on our a—es the rest of lives.” It was a moment that hit me right in the gut. Ed clearly adores Pam and wants to take care of her, but a person can only set aside their own needs for so long before they break. He expects himself to be everything for her at all times, but he can't be and cannot expect himself to be.

Despite these moments of sadness, there is a lot of joy in The Genius of Marian, and I admire White for using the film to paint a portrait of his mother and her accomplished life. Through interviews with friends and family, I got to know Pam as a mother, wife, and creative soul. She is a former actress and model, an artist, and even a singer performing weekly in a women's acapella singing group. Her smile is beautiful and warm, lighting up her face even on her darkest days. Pam is never shown as a victim or as someone to be pitied but rather a brilliant woman fighting for her mind but seeing it slip away nonetheless. In an interview, one of her friends slips up and says Pam was a good friend, and when she realizes her mistake, she breaks down crying. “She is a great friend. Is, not was.”

Near the end of the film, Pam says that she wants to tell the world about Marian because she was special and doesn't want her forgotten. Off-screen, Banker replies, “I think you're really special,” and Pam smiles. The Genius of Marian is more than a documentary about Alzheimer's disease. This film is a tribute to the genius of Pam and the genius of Marian, a love letter from a son to his mother, and surely Pam's story will not soon be forgotten.

Rachel Kolb • Staff Writer

I love movies, writing, and breaking into song in public. You can follow me on Twitter @rachelekolb or check out more of my work at


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