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Alzheimer’s film is a mix of family and art

Banker White and his mother, Pam White, the subject of “The Genius of Marian.”

Banker White

Banker White and his mother, Pam White, the subject of “The Genius of Marian.”

A personal documentary about the devastation of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, “The Genius of Marian,” screening Jan. 22-30 at the Museum of Fine Arts, is a family portrait in every sense.

Filmmaker and Needham native Banker White produced and directed the film with his wife, Anna Fitch, who is also a documentary filmmaker. It is a tender and intimate look at Banker’s mother, Pam White, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2009 when she was 61. Banker White shot much of the film, which follows Pam over the next three years, while he lived with his parents in Dedham, helping his father, Ed, care for Pam. The project began, Banker says, simply as a way to connect with his mother and keep her engaged.

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“I never thought of it in terms of a film. It was a process that helped my mom once we fell into a regular schedule,” says Banker White, whose film credits include the 2005 documentary “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars.” Early in the film, it’s revealed that Pam wanted to write a book called “The Genius of Marian” about her own mother, the New England artist Marian Williams Steele, whose paintings of her children and grandchildren, many depicting them on the beaches of Gloucester, fill the Whites’ home.

“The book project became a daily activity that helped my dad and really helped me,” says Banker, who graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, then moved to San Francisco to study painting at California College of the Arts. “It was important to me to hold to my mom’s original project, which is why I kept the title, even though it’s confusing for people. It was important that this was something we were doing together.”

The collaboration with her son was natural for Pam, a former model turned therapist.

“She’s a crazy-supportive mom; over-the-top supportive,” says Banker. “This film, to my mom, was another of my art projects and it’s in her nature to say ‘of course.’ ”

After shooting in Dedham and Boston, White and Fitch returned to San Francisco to edit the film but kept in close touch with Pam and the family. Now that “The Genius of Marian” is screening in film festivals and at the MFA, Pam White, who still lives with her husband in Dedham though her condition has deteriorated, accompanies Banker and other members of her family to screenings as often as she is able.

“She’s changed dramatically since we finished the film but she enjoys the emotional connection and the energy around the screenings and discussions. We don’t want to remove her from that. When people come up to her and talk to her, she doesn’t always understand but she feels it and appreciates it,” says Banker, who will engage in discussions with the audience following most of the MFA screenings.

“My films have always had an advocacy and a social component. It’s important to combat the stigma and the loneliness of Alzheimer’s by talking about it,” he says. It’s also part of Pam White’s legacy. “My mom was a school counselor at Milton Academy. I’ve had audience members who were former students come up after screenings and tell me, ‘I would never have survived high school without your mother.’ I see the film in some ways as a continuation of my mom’s work. It’s personal, but it gives us the opportunity to share an honest, intimate look at Alzheimer’s, which affects millions of people.”

The Jan. 22 screening of “The Genius of Marian” at the MFA (7:30 p.m.) will be followed by a panel discussion that includes Banker White; Susan Rowlett, manager of care consultation and clinical education at the Alzheimer’s Association, MA/NH chapter; and Brent Forrester, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the geriatric mood disorders research program at McLean Hospital. Diane Stern of WBZ Radio will moderate.

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.
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