“I love being called a mother,” smiles Mutinta Mweemba. ” Just being a mom makes me so happy.” Mutinta is 28 years old. She has three children with her husband, Abacorn, a farmer in Monze, Zambia. “As a child,” she continues, “I always dreamed of growing up into someone perfect. But I failed. It didn’t turn out that way.”
As she speaks, Mutinta gazes steadily into the camera, her face at once composed and stricken. Her story unfolds slowly in The Carrier. You glimpse her children in close-up shots barely able to keep up with them (an 11-year-old son who likes to “roughhouse,” an eight-year-old daughter fond of “pottery and playing house”) and you see Abarcon, somber as her recalls first seeing her on the road: “My heart must have said something,” she says, “That’s why I stopped.” She was 16 then, Mutinta remembers, and she “just loved to stare into his face.”
What she didn’t know right away was that Abarcon was already married. Men in her tribe regularly have multiple wives, but she when she learned about Brenda, his first wife, she felt lied to. By that time, the dowry had been paid, and her parents couldn’t afford to return the cows, she says. “It was hard at first, but eventually I got used to it.” Now the wives number three, including Matildah, and they all live together, with their children and Abarcon. Long shots show kids playing with a rough approximation of a soccer ball, or Abarcon with his cattle, green grasses stretching to the back of the frame. Closer images show Mutinta and Matildah separately, their faces turned away from the camera. According to Mutinta, Matildah “thinks she’s so much better than the rest of us.” They rarely speak to one another.
They do speak to the camera, repeatedly. And their visible confidence in these moments helps to make Maggie Betts’ documentary remarkable, even beyond the story it tells. Screening this week at New York’s IFC Center and opening on Friday in LA, as part of DocuWeeks, The Carrier is focused on the effects of HIV on Muntinta’s family. As it begins, both she and Brenda are positive, and so is Abarcon. No one knows how the virus came into their family; everyone in the chiefdom has been affected. “We first heard about this virus back in 1979,” says Patrick Nchimunya, second in command to the chief. “A lot of people were suffering.” A brief tour of a clinic reveals some effects, with patients lying listless on beds, nurses moving quickly across frames already bustling with activity, and children standing in doorways, waiting.
In this, the children reflect a sensibility that pervades the film, a sensibility combining strength and patience, frustration and anxiety, as well as a lingering ignorance. When Mutinta reveals that she’s pregnant again, she’s concerned that her husband doesn’t appreciate the risk. “It was an accident,” she says, noting that though she was “taking birth control, something went wrong.” She goes on, “Abarcon knows we’re all infected with the virus, but I don’t think he understands the complications involved when you’re pregnant.” She attends PMTCT (Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission) classes and listens carefully: “We need to keep an open mind and stay vigilant,” says the instructor. “Take pills to save your babies.”
She also worries about Brenda, who is more often sick. “I was always closest to Brenda, from the beginning,” says Mutinta. “We promised to take care of each other’s kids. I can’t imagine what life will be like without her.” Even as they both know this life is imminent, and Brenda’s stays in the hospital are more frequent and longer, Abarcon keeps his attention elsewhere. He tells his father — who comes to visit on his bicycle, wearing a suit and worried about the discord in his family — that he’s trying to sort out the lagging corn crop and how to look after the cows. As they walk together, corn stalks obscuring their faces, Abarcon sighs, “We just don’t know the future.”
Mutinta is less sanguine about what’s coming, worried for her and Brenda’s children, and confronts her husband about his obligation to look after them, before and after his own imminent death. Though she’s committed to “staying protected” for the sake of their unborn child, he’s still “sleeping around.” He insists that it’s his right to “enjoy myself,” and besides, he wears condoms. Mutinta isn’t convinced. Matildah, recently diagnosed as positive, is now pregnant as well, she points out. “You’re the one still sleeping around,” she says, angry and hurt. “The disease is real. If you choose to deny it, you’re just killing yourself.” And, she implies, their family.
And this is a central focus for The Carrier. In the face of certain risk, as families and communities are affected, men in the chiefdom continue to behave as they always have, unable or unwilling to feel responsible, for themselves and their loved ones. During an alarming but hardly unexpected scene, Nchimunya visits with a group of men, who laugh at their reported inabilities to control themselves. He looks dismayed, then tries to explain what’s at stake. The camera cuts from one face to another. It’s not clear at all that the men understand.
Mutinta and Matildah, by contrast, make it their business to talk with one another. Matilidah is following Mutinta’s example, taking her pills and staying as healthy as she can. “Just do everything they tell you,” Mutinta tells the younger woman. They sit together in the same room, and they nod.