If you were to watch “The Carrier” without subtitles, there are many points at which you’d suspect nothing is wrong and perhaps that’s the saddest statement the film makes of all. A documentary about the life of a polygamous family in Zambia where the beauty of the landscape is diametrically opposed with the tragic spread of HIV between the members of the Mweeba clan, Maggie Betts’ film often features its subjects as expressionless when discussing contraction of the disease as though it’s an accepted part of life in their community, a feeling that emerges not out of a lack of care, but years of defeat.
For the family’s patriarch Abarcon, it’s a minor inconvenience, a price he pays for sleeping around with multiple partners both within and outside of his marriage, but for his three wives Brenda, Matildah and Mutinta, it’s tantamount to a death sentence well before they’re felled by the ultimately fatal symptoms of HIV as they live in constant fear of succumbing to AIDS or passing it onto their children. While the film only chronicles what appears to be a few months in their lives, it’s obviously emblematic of a cycle that was firmly established generations before and that the marginalization of women will only continue unless they start to challenge their place in society, a realization that comes to Mutinta when she discovers she’s carrying the latest of Abarcon’s many, many children.
Even without knowing anything about the making of “The Carrier,” it wouldn’t take long to guess that Betts was involved as an AIDS activist before she got into filmmaking, a fact that while being sussed out by a little research is evident from the film’s strident portrayal of Mutinta’s gradual empowerment after she entered into a marriage with Abarcon without knowing of his other wives and likewise, Abarcon’s nonchalance about the way he’s infected the lives of others in both the literal and figurative sense. (It’s actually the casualness of Abarcon, a handsome if not particularly charming or imposing man dressed in breezy shirts with David Beckham and Guess logos, that’s one of the film’s main points of interest, as he can’t easily be demonized.) Yet even if it seems at times that the weight of Betts’ passion is focused more on making a point than telling a story, the one she finds in the small village of Monze is too powerful to be denied.
That “The Carrier” is elegantly shot by cinematographer Kathryn Westergaard and crafted to get the maximum amount of tension from whether or not the wives’ current pregnancies will result in HIV-infected babies makes it far more engaging than most like-minded documentaries, but as one that earns its ultimately hopeful and uplifting conclusion, it’s a rare film that’s rewarding not only because it’s enriching, but because it’s richly told.
“The Carrier” currently has no U.S. distribution, but will play the Tribeca Film Festival again on April 25th, 26th and 30th.