Filmmaker Q&A with Director Gabriela Arp

Is there a particular video, film, campaign or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?

Notes on Blindness


What motivated you to make your virtual reality project?

My grandmother and my three aunts on my mother’s side have all struggled with Alzheimer’s disease. It often feels as if Alzheimer’s is a looming dark cloud encircling the women in our family, especially my own mother. During family get togethers, we’d all discuss the latest “remedies” or “advancements” in curing the disease and I found that all of these discussions came from a place of fear. When I set out to make this film, I wanted to show another side of the disease, one that focuses on what remains of memory, as opposed to what is lost. I thought of the memories that remained with my family despite this unforgiving disease – memories of playing on the beaches in Puerto Rico, where our family is from, images of my cousins riding bicycles with suits that were hand sewn my by Aunt. Hearing these traces of memory fall in and out, I thought aren’t these the most beautiful and transcendent pieces of cognition, those that remain despite the destruction from disease, and I wanted to illustrate this idea through the VR film.


Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.

I shot with a six-camera GoPro rig and used Auto Video Pano Pro to stitch the materials together.


Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your virtual reality video to help tell your story.

I wanted the film to be very cinematic and feel as if we were traveling to the memory space of the protagonist. We achieved this through long, eye-level shots that make you as if you are a part of this story. In addition, we used spatial audio to immerse the viewer into the experience.


How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?

It’s interesting because I knew I wanted to make a film about Alzheimer’s, but I wasn’t sure where to begin. I had met 88-year old Willie White through a friend and I just went to her home one day and started recording our conversations. I felt immediately connected to Willie and her daughter and just kept going over their home. I felt like I was instantly part of the family. When I would sit with Willie, I would just ask her questions about her childhood. Because people are afraid of Alzheimer’s disease, I find they often don’t know what to say so instead of engaing with people living with the disease, they just avoid them. But Willie loved sharing her memories, even if they weren’t always fully formed or perfectly accurate. Having someone interested in her life and encouraging her to communicate was a joyful part of her day and it certainly brought me so much joy. After I had all these audio interviews, I was unsure of what to do with them. Coincidentally, my graduate school had just received all of this 360-filmmaking equipment for the program. I began thinking how interesting it would be if we could feel as if we were with Willie as she was trying to remember traces of memory from her childhood. And that’s how I decided to pursue VR as a format for this film because it just felt as if these pieces were coming together in a really unique way to illustrate Willie’s story.


Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this virtual reality video.

Since these were Willie’s memories, I was very intentional about making them as close as she described as possible. To achieve this, I decided to film in her hometown of Mason, Tennessee. The most rewarding part of the filmmaking process was seeing all of these members of her community – her sisters, who were in their 80s and 90s, her church members, cousins and friends – all came together to be a part of this film. They offered spaces free of charge, acted in the film and helped us create the environments by providing more details of Willie’s memories. Many of her family members had not even seen Willie since she had Alzheimer’s and it was beautiful to see them all come together to create something in her honor. I premiered the film at Indie Memphis so that they would be the first people to see it and it was so touching to see her family members experience the film, and experience a piece of Willie’s history. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my film career.


What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

I think as filmmakers we often think about impact on this macro scale. How can our work affect policy, advocate for more research or impact the masses? And while these are critical perspectives to maintain in the filmmaking process, I think it’s just as important to be focused on the individual and the immediate impact of our stories. Traces has the potential to shift many people’s perceptions of memory and disease. But, I didn’t want to get so caught up in that idea that I forgot about the immediate people it could affect – Willie, her daughter, their family and community. By bringing her community into the filmmaking process and making the film available for them, I know that I was able to shift their views of Alzheimer’s tremendously. And my hope is that that trickles down into more individual families struggling with seeing any light from the disease.


What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?

I love thinking through creative ways to share people’s stories. Traditional film and online video are powerful, but I believe we are at a unique place in time to be thinking about how we can produce and distribute film in new and imaginative ways, which could have a tremendous rewards for impact programs.


What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why?

I always bring a Swiss Army Knife because I find that I’m always needing to cut a tag off someone’s shirt, tighten screws of a rig, open the package of a box, etc.


Please provide a brief description of the work or organization featured in your video:

The film is based on a series of audio interviews with Willie White about the memories she has from growing up in Mason, TN. Willie is currently 88-years old and lives in Durham, North Carolina with her daughter and primary caregiver, Phyllis Wyrick. In 2006, Willie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Though she struggles to remember daily tasks like taking a bath, making a meal and taking her medications, she still has traces of memory that have endured the unforgiving trail of disease.


What have you learned about the value and impact of the project?

This project has mostly shown me the value of focusing on the individual and the impact the film is making on them and their immediate circles. It’s important to always be checking in on them and making sure that the filmmaking process is just as enjoyable for them as it is for the people producing the project.


Please share a personal story about your experience making this virtual reality video.

One of my favorite memories was when we brought the film to Memphis to show Willie’s sisters! With Willie’s 90-year old sister, we spun her around in her walker to make sure she could see all aspects of the 360-degree film. Her other sister, who is 86 years old, started watching the film and grabbed my arm and said “I love hearing Willie’s voice, but I can’t see any of the pictures.” I frantically started Googling what could have gone wrong with the device and ways to fix the film when I noticed that she was wearing a beanie-style hat. A piece of that hat had gone over her eyes so she wasn’t able to see the film. I lifted the beanie and she could see it and exclaimed how beautiful it was. It made me laugh and also reminded me that VR should be for everyone. While we don’t often see people in their eighties and nineties as the main focus of our VR distribution strategies, I believe that they could actually receive some of the biggest benefit and it’s made me shift my thoughts on distribution away from the traditional festival model.


What do you want audiences to take away from this video?

I want people to wake away challenged about their current perceptions around memory. While Alzheimer’s is a very difficult and painful disease to watch our loved ones go through, there is also traces of beauty in that experience.


Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:

Changing our perceptions on memory, VR as a way to bring people into “internal spaces” such as memory, participatory documentary, impact starting with the individual


What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?

We’re looking for more places to distribute the film, especially in nursing homes, facilities and communities that are focused on Alzheimer’s care and conferences and workshops for caregivers. We’d also love to develop a curriculum for family members and caregivers that helps them rethink the disease and teaches them ways to document their family members’ memories.


Please provide any additional resources (websites, links to additional videos, forms, articles, etc.) relevant to the context of the issue discussed in your video:



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