This Black History Month we are highlighting films featuring African-American stories and African-American filmmakers on Jaunt. The first film in our series this month is Traces, directed by Gabriela Arp. After dealing with her family history with Alzheimer’s disease she decided to make her own film to highlight the people and stories that have been effected by the disease. In finding her story, Gabriela met the incredible Willie White, the 88 year old matriarch that suffers from the same ailment. In this installment we spoke with Gabriela about making the film as well as Ms. White’s daughter Phyllis on her mother’s legacy in 360 degrees.
Gabriela, tell us about your background and how you became a filmmaker.
Gabriela Arp (Director, Producer & Editor of Traces): For the past five years, I have been working as a documentary filmmaker. I have loved the work and the experiences that have come out of it and I certainly don’t take lightly the privilege of being invited into people’s homes and stories.
However, during my time working in the field, I felt something profoundly lacking from the traditional documentary structure. I often go back to Werner Herzog’s who says “Facts do not constitute the truth. There is a deeper stratum.” And while this statement on its surface may be alarming in our current world of “alternative facts” and media bias, I think it gets at the core of what I’m trying to accomplish through my work.
I want to convey the truth in my work. That is my ultimate focus. But I believe there is a deeper truth that lies beneath the details, statistics and verite footage we’ve been culturally conditioned to see as “truth” and I believe that if you can access this deeper layer of emotion and feeling than you have a real opportunity to affect the viewer and challenge their perceptions of reality.
That’s why I’ve begun integrating more technology, fiction and art into my documentary process. The core of my work is rooted in real-life stories, accounts and experiences, but the visuals, sounds and movements are artistic interpretations of human experience.
How did you meet Willie White and how did you decide on telling her story?
Gabriela Arp (Director, Producer & Editor of Traces): When I decided I wanted to pursue this project, I put out a call to different organizations in the area focusing on Alzheimer’s care. I specifically wanted to interview a woman, due to my own family history and because women are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s than men. It was also important that I interview a woman of color because coming from a large Puerto Rican family on my mom’s side, I knew that information and education around the disease had not been as widely disseminated in communities of color.
When I met 88-year old Willie E. White, I knew immediately she would be the focal point of the project. I walked into her house and without knowing me, she gave me the warmest hug and greeted me with a huge smile. She exuded so much joy and we instantly connected.
In our first audio interview together, we began to record and Willie could not remember clearly many moments of her past. I could tell it was frustrating and discouraging for Phyllis to watch her mother struggle. At the end of the interview, we were all tired, but had landed on the topic of church and talking about Willie’s involvement in the choir. Out of nowhere, Willie started singing “Blessed Assurance.” She sang the song perfectly with such soulfulness and joy, bringing tears to both Phyllis and my eyes. In that moment, it gave us a chance to reflect on the beauty of the memories that outlast the cruelness of disease and that brought a peace to the filmmaking process.
As Willie’s daughter, what was your experience making the film with Gabriela? How did it contribute to your healing process as your mother’s Alzheimer’s continued to progress?
Phyllis Wyrick (Willie’s Daughter): The making of Traces was quite an honor and at times felt like a dream. I couldn’t believe it was happening. At first, I was concerned about how Momma would pull it off because of the disease. I was so pleased and grateful because I knew that my mother has always loved participating in activities that would bring joy and help others. Traces was just the vehicle to do that. She was happy to do it. It was an opportunity for her to make a difference to many others that would far outlive her, despite her challenges caused by Alzheimer’s. That’s the kind of lady my mother was throughout her life, even until the end.
At the onset of her disease, she knew something wasn’t right with her cognitive processes, therefore, she relied heavily on me to fill in the blanks. It was challenging to get her prepared for interviews with Gabriela, to help her trust her own memories, and to try to keep her focused for long periods of time. We were close before she became ill, but even more so due to the disease. We became like two bodies operating with one brain.
Gabriela Arp (Director, Producer & Editor of Traces): It was an honor to be invited into Phyliis and Willie’s relationship during the making of Traces. Phyllis provided round-the-clock care for her mother and she did it with such joy and grace. She was, and still is, an inspiration for me as I see the beginning signs of Alzheimer’s in my own mother.
I think sometimes when you’re consumed with caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, you can also become consumed with seeing what you’ve lost in that person. I’ve seen that a lot with my own family’s history with the disease. I think collaborating together on Traces was a therapeutic process in some way for Phyllis and Willie because it allowed for them to focus on what remained of Willie’s memory, as opposed to what was lost.
What are other projects that you’re working on that may involve VR and are you open to using more emerging technology in your art?
Gabriela Arp (Director, Producer & Editor of Traces): The possibility of shooting in 360 and using immerging technology is very intriguing to me. I think the biggest thing for me is make sure that I am fitting the medium with the story instead of trying to fit the story into the medium. Virtual reality and other new technologies are creating so many new ways for us to tell stories, but the technologies should only be used if it’s pushing the story and experience forward and not being used to drive hype around a project.
I’m really interested in continuing to examine the meaning of memory in this medium. I’m working on a project now called Forward that would tell individual stories of human migration through virtual reality. The stories would be told from a place of reflection and use re-enactments and illustrations to explore the conflicting nature of home for individuals who are leaving one place for another. The aim of the project is to create the feelings of place, movement and memory associated with journeys of migration.
Willie was a strong and inspiring woman and you could tell through the story of Traces. How did Willie inspire both of you as well as the community around her?
Phyllis Wyrick (Willie’s Daughter): Although, sweet and gentle, my mother was a very strong and inspiring woman. She was quite like an iron hand in a velvet glove. She always strived to rise above her circumstances and refused to be limited or defined by them. The making of Traces honored her life while she lived and beyond. Just knowing that we were working together on part of her legacy was very uplifting and meaningful to me. Seeing how my mother’s faith in God, her effervescent joy, and love for family and friends remained was very encouraging. She loved people and she shared love and joy with all who met her. Oh, that big, beautiful, warm smile of hers! Witnessing how she kept peaceful most of the time, was something to aspire to during those stressful times. Even through her challenges, she was still teaching us all the importance of holding on to what really matters — our faith in God, love, joy, peace, and strength, no matter what.
Gabriela Arp (Director, Producer & Editor of Traces): Willie was such an inspiration to me throughout the whole filmmaking process. Although she did not always remember who I was, she always greeted me with the most beautiful smile and her effervescent laugh is something that will always stay with me. Even when she was struggling to remember pieces of her past, she never let embarrassment stop her from trying to remember or speaking openly with me. She pushed fervently through our questions and always made me feel welcome. Something Phyllis said once really stuck with me as we were reflecting on the strength of her mother. She said “She may have lost her memory, but she’s never lost her joy.” And this was the most inspiring part being around Willie. She did not let loss define her and she did not let it hurt her faith and her whole community was inspired by her strength in spirit.
How does VR help you get your artistic message across? How did it help viewers transport themselves to Willie’s memories?
Gabriela Arp (Director, Producer & Editor of Traces): The virtual reality film I ended up making is called Traces and the idea is that when you put on the headset, you are experiencing traces of Willie’s memory. As you watch the film, you hear Willie’s audio from our interviews together and you see recreations of her memories by actors in different landscapes. Through these vibrant recollections, illustrated through re-enactments, the viewer travels with Willie as she searches for the words to one of her favorite songs and the meaning of memory in this new and fragmented landscape.
I did not want to create factual recreations of memory, but rather interpretations that expressed Willie’s version of the truth. Virtual reality created a way to immerse others into that memory space and experience a different thought process. It allows you to see Willie’s memories as she may see them, which to me illustrates truth in a much deeper way than if her actual memories were displayed as “factually accurate” artifacts.
How do you hope this film continues your mother’s legacy?
Gabriela Arp (Director, Producer & Editor of Traces): Phyllis undoubtedly inherited Willie’s joyfulness and courage. For five years, Phyllis cared day in and day out for her mother while balancing a full-time job. As she painfully watched her mother’s health and memory diminish, she continued to care for her with the utmost dignity and respect. I could see Phyllis’ love all around her in small ways like making sure Willie’s hair and nails were always done and in bigger ways like holding her mother as she became upset or unwilling to get out of bed.
Phyllis continues her mother’s legacy in so many ways. She is an active member of many online and in-person Alzheimer’s groups, supporting and encouraging people going through the same struggle she did. She is in the process of finishing a book that gives caregivers tips and inspiration she wishes she had while caring for her mother. And beyond all of the work she is doing in the Alzheimer’s community to honor her mother’s legacy, the biggest thing she inherited was her mother’s unbreakable faith. Her faith inspires me and so many others to continue pushing forward against adversity and to care for those around us with the highest degree of dignity, compassion and love.
Phyllis Wyrick (Willie’s Daughter): Every day of my life since my mother has transitioned, I think about the values that she instilled in me. Her legacy of faith, hope, love, joy, peace, and strength live on in me. I frequently hear her voice reminding me of living those values when I’m in various situations. I witnessed her strength and tenacity during some of life’s most painful suffering. My husband, Jeff and I were honored to be her primary caregivers for five years. She set the example on how to live a triumphant life despite adversities. What a blessing! There is absolutely no other way for me to live.