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January 28, 2015

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Q & A with Filmmaker Maggie Betts, Director of 'The Carrier'

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Gotham socialite and filmmaker Maggie Betts makes her directorial debut with the compelling new documentary, 'The Carrier,' which premieres tonight (Apr. 21) at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. The story follows Mutinta, a young Zambian woman who's pregnant and in a legally polygamous marriage. When she discovers she's HIV positive, she sets out to keep her baby, and community, virus-free.

Rebecca Carroll: One of the things that struck me most about Madonna's 2008 documentary, 'I Am Because We Are,' about children in Malawi with AIDS, was that there was absolutely no discussion whatsoever about practicing safe sex. Why is that?
Maggie Betts: It's really hard to express an opinion about that issue, because the context is so different. The level of education I had when I was 12 is barely reaching people in rural [African] communities now. The one strong opinion that I do have, is that I truly believe that female empowerment and protecting the rights of women, and particularly HIV positive women, is one of the greatest opportunities we have to go at the pandemic in a new and probably more successful way. A lot of women in the film barely have any choice over who they sleep with, when they sleep with them, and if they get pregnant or not get pregnant. They are so conscientious about the spread of the virus, and I feel like if they were given more agency, it would make a great impact on how the disease is spread.

RC: So if the women are super-conscientious of spreading the virus, what's the conversation?
MB: The women don't want to infect other people, whereas men seem less concerned.

RC: Which kind of resonates on a global level as well, right?
MB: Yeah, and it's the same argument as if you said there would there be less wars if women ran the world.

RC: Clearly, you are well known in NYC as a fashionista of sorts. What was it like filming in rural Africa day to day?
MB: We stayed in a very bare bones, rudimentary hotel -- there's a toilet and electricity, but I would say that's the end of the amenities. We would get up super early, like 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning. You have to drive quite a ways to get where we were filming. It's absolutely gorgeous; I loved those rides, old dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. This particular family that we were shooting lived on a large maize farm, and we just kind of lived their life with them.


RC: What did that look like?
MB: They're subsistence farmers, so they get up really early and take care of their kids, farm, and usually by 1 or 2pm, when the sun is the highest, they take a break. For the women, you would not believe how filled up their days are with getting their children ready for school, sweeping up the property, farming, cooking, feeding themselves, doing laundry.

RC: How about your hair? It's such a fundamental aspect of daily maintenance for black American women that I have to ask.
MB: I usually wore it in a ponytail, and was just really concerned about keeping it up. I didn't care what it looked like.

RC: How long did you shoot?
MB: I spent four months total there. We shot two women, and this particular story just gradually emerged. Of those four months, the majority was with this family.

RC: Have you been back?
MB: It's hard because it takes 27 hours to get there. I want to try to go back this summer, and I became very close with the woman who served as our translator. We left a cell phone with the family, so the translator calls Mutinta, the lead character from the movie, and Mutinta tells her how she's doing and the translator emails that to me, and then I write a letter back and she reads it to Mutinta. That happens once a month. Mutinta is now mainly just interested in whether I've got a boyfriend yet.

RC: Has Mutinta seen the film? Are you going to show it to her and her family?
MB: No, she hasn't. I would like to show it to them, but they've never seen a movie in their lives, and so I don't know how it would be to process the sophistication of the editing. And there aren't that many facilities [in rural Zambia] to watch movies, even on television. But I want to figure it out and do it in a special way, and just be alone with her and watch it to see what she thinks. I think she'd like it, but it's also a totally different context. I think she would be pleased.

RC: How did you describe it to her when you were talking about making the movie?
MB: I told her that we were trying to tell a story in pictures, and it was going to be the story and effort to protect her baby from HIV. We just wanted her to be honest and open about what this was like, and then we would bring that back to our country and share that. And our hope is that people in our country would be moved to help people like her.


RC: What struck you most about the filmmaking process?
MB: Having never made a movie and going this far, it's almost like what didn't strike me about the process? I learned about things I cared about. I didn't know I had this deep, very visceral interest in women's rights. I learned what I value from [Mutinta]. I was filming, studying and obsessing over this person, and trying to figure out the larger themes that she represented so that I could communicate them to other people. I admire so many things about her. She taught me things that I value. I never felt it like that.

RC: I often wonder about going to a place that is so far from your own experience, and seeing people and situations that are deeply compromised. Then coming home to America, which is so ridiculously over the top with resources.
MB: I remember coming home after the first days of filming and crying, crying, crying over the variety of foods that were available within a two block radius on my street in the West Village. I could get pizza, Chinese food, Thai food, Japanese food, organic, raw and it definitely did seems so unfair.

RC: It would be hard to compartmentalize my feelings once I got back home. I'd probably be thinking "Where is Mutinta today?" or "Why can't I bring her here?"
MB: I said to her, do you have any idea of how many people have HIV in Africa? And she said "no clue." I told her it's about 25 to 28 million people, and she was shocked. I don't even know if she knew there were that many people in the world. The look on her face to know that there are that many people suffering is impossible for her to understand. I asked her if it made her feel comforted to know that she's not the only one, and she said, "No, because I'm one of those people."

RC: And now you're headed to this film festival. You'll do a lot of press junkets and talk about this movie as if it's a commodity, essentially. How do you feel about that?
MB: The movie is about an idea, the idea of the possibility of seeing an HIV-free generation in the next 10 or 15 years, and however I can sell that idea to people to make believe in that, is worth the effort for me.

Here's a trailer of 'The Carrier' -- check it.

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