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Maggie Betts: The Carrier

It's estimated that more than 250 Zambians are infected with HIV each day. Meet the filmmaker whose breathtaking doc explores one infected mother's struggle, and highlights the state of a nation.

Director Maggie Betts


Tribeca: How do you describe The Carrier in your own words?


Maggie Betts:
The Carrier is meant to be a very hopeful, or symbolic, metaphor for the potential for an HIV-free generation in Africa. But it’s also obviously really about one woman. What first interested me about making a documentary on this subject was the concept of maternal love and sacrifice pushed to its utmost extreme.


I first learned about the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT), and realized that there were all these faceless women across the continent who were engaged in this very anonymous, heroic act to try and prevent their children from being born with HIV. That,  simultaneously connected with the potential for an HIV-free generation, was really what engaged me: the concept of maternal love and what it looks like or feels like in the most extreme circumstance.

Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? Did you start first by wanting to tell a story about a broad subject, or did you find the family first, and thought, now I can extrapolate?


Maggie Betts:
I had always wanted to make a movie first, and had been traveling a lot to Africa over the past 5 or 6 years with UNICEF and the World Food Program


Tribeca: Was that part of a job you had?


Maggie Betts:
No, my mom lost 2 of her brothers to HIV when I was a teenager, and I was very interested in AIDS in Africa, so I kind of networked around and got myself connected to people at UNICEF and the World Food Program, and was able to get myself invited on trips to Africa. And then I would come back and do fundraisers and advocacy that made it valuable to them for me to go.


Gradually, these strides were being made in PMTCT (prevention of mother-to-child transmission), and it became much more accessible and cheaper to administer through programs. So PMTCT started to get on everybody’s radar, and I just started learning about it, and visiting different programs that were focused on it.


I had wanted to get involved with HIV/AIDS in Africa out of a desire to connect with my mom and her experiences, and then I started to learn about women and mothers with HIV. And PMTCT, simultaneously, on a larger scale was becoming the shifting message about AIDS in Africa—what was going to become this new, hopeful dialogue—how it could start to turn the tide of how people perceive the pandemic. So it was kind of a culmination of a lot of different things.




Tribeca: How did you find your family of subjects? Was the lead character (Mutinta) initially receptive? Did they have any concept of what a film was?


Maggie Betts:
They have never seen a movie. They’ve seen television, maybe once or twice. We organized a scout trip—the UNICEF office here connected us with the country UNICEF office in Zambia. I knew I wanted the setting to be very rural, for the visual aspects, and they suggested that we work the Keemba Rural Health Centre. That little clinic services 6000 people, and it was one of the first pilot programs for PMTCT that UNICEF and the Zambian Ministry of Health and some other NGOs had supported. The program flourished and has now become part of the national health program.


So we brought our scout program to this area, and it was crazy finding Mutinta. We showed up on the one day a month where they test pregnant women for HIV/AIDS, and we filmed 30 women getting HIV tests in a small room, and it was the most harrowing thing. Fortunately, no one tested positive that day, which was great… so we asked this old-timer who worked at the health center whether he had any records of women who were HIV positive and between 4 and 6 months pregnant. He busted out these little notebook pieces of paper, and we broke it down into a list of 4-5 women that he was then going to go talk to.


What was interesting was all of them were named Mutinta—which means “change in pattern” in Tonga, so it was kind of a spiritual feeling; I had a deep spiritual connection to that community, because you could feel that something was going to change there… So our (eventual) Mutinta showed up with her husband. We started talking to them, and the husband did all the talking, and she was very demure and kind of quiet, nodding—and this is all through translators. We explained [the project] to them, and they told us about the other wives at home... You could tell that there was a lot going on there.


They invited us to their house the next day, and we interviewed her a bit, played soccer with the kids, they made us food. And then the husband was like, “We’re in.”


Tribeca: Did you have to explain the concept of the movie?


Maggie Betts
: What they mostly understood was this: “If you tell your story, we will put it in this machine, and edit it, and show it like big pictures. We will play this story like a book or a fairy tale to people in our country, and then they can learn more about people in your country, what your experiences are like. They might want to help. If you show them the truth of your life, and are very open and honest about it, they might want to help you, your community, your country… We will also promote the idea of trying to help the community when we make the film.” (And we have sent back to the community as a whole.)


Mutinta was really cool. She was like, “Okay.”



Tribeca: It must have been so surreal for them.


Maggie Betts
: But everyone in that community was so human—they were just so lovely, too. I can’t imagine that they would have any context for who we are, where we come from, what we were doing. I mean, they trusted us because they are warm, but at the same time, it’s just a part of that culture to always… it was just such a beautiful, trusting place.


Tribeca: How long were you there?


Maggie Betts:
We shot on four consecutive trips, and we were there a total of about four months. We always knew it would be finite, which is important when you make a documentary, because you could go on forever. But we knew the baby was going to be tested, and however it turned out, that would be a definitive end point to the story we were telling.


Tribeca: This is your first feature, so I am sure the whole thing was a learning process, but can you distill, or tease out, the biggest thing you learned while making The Carrier? Any advice for aspiring filmmakers?


Maggie Betts:
I loved my crew so much, but I learned that if you’re not really, really clear on what you want, even in the most kind of harmonious film crew, everyone has these, “Oh, we should do it this way; we should do it that way” ideas. As a first-time filmmaker, if you have a vision, and it feels authentic to you, and it feels right, you should stick with it, because you will second-guess yourself a lot.


I wanted to do my film in this really narrative, really lyrical way—I was obsessed with Terrence Malick movies, so I had all these ideas about what I wanted to do—and they weren’t always so well received, not in a snooty way, but in a “you don’t do that in a doc” kind of way. And I think you know if something really, really feels authentic to you, if you NEED to do something, and if you just stick with it, it probably will have a sense of aesthetic coherence, if nothing else. And if you have a good sense of storytelling and sensitivity to the human experience, you can add those to it too.


When a lot of the things I wanted were visual, I needed to be open to advice. If I wanted to film a scene at dusk or sunset, I needed to be able to tell the cinematographer—to fully understand what s/he needs in order to get what I’m asking for. And there’s a LOT of technical stuff [to learn]. I now understand the conditions that need to be in place in order to get it the way I want it to look. 



Tribeca: What are your hopes for The Carrier at Tribeca?


Maggie Betts:
I hope it’s well received by the audiences that come to see it. I think New Yorkers in particular are very philanthropic and generous and open-hearted, and very sophisticated in their interests in the bigger world. I think America as a whole receives a lot of criticism—perhaps fairly—for having a lack of interest in anything outside of America, but I do think that New Yorkers transcend that stereotype a bit, and that they are able to engage and invest in stories from very, very different cultures and environments.


A lot of people don’t know about the potential for an AIDS-free generation, so the main thing I hope for from Tribeca—and anywhere else it’s seen—is that people start to get how close we are, and how amazing it can be to support women in Mutinta’s situation.


Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from The Carrier? Are there action steps you want your film to effect?


Maggie Betts:
The most important thing is to create a groundswell in the movement, so that individual leaders of African countries can see that this is something that people really, really want to happen. And that there is huge potential for it. (RED) has an HIV-free by 2015 campaign—which is really ambitious—and they think we can get there!

Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?


Maggie Betts:
Terrence Malick, for his creation of atmosphere and the heart and spirituality that’s not really advertised—it’s a hidden spirituality. I like The New World the best.


Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?


Maggie Betts:
You know what I’m obsessed with right now? This documentary called Deep Water that the BBC made about Donald Crowhurst, who was this hack sailor who entered the first-ever around-the-world solo race. He went crazy at sea. It came out a while ago, and I only discovered it via iTunes recently. Deep Water. It’s really, weirdly profound. It haunts you.


Tribeca: What makes The Carrier a Tribeca must-see?


Maggie Betts:
I do think it’s a more cinematic, narrative-feeling documentary experience than I’ve seen from a lot of other docs recently. I think it centers on one of the most unexpected—beautiful and profound—heroines that I’ve ever seen, in either a narrative or a documentary. She kind of encompassed for me, as a director, all these themes; I couldn’t have even worked a character out like her. Mutinta’s is a small story that illuminates a huge issue.

Find out where and when The Carrier is playing at the Festival.


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