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TC Doc Series: Samantha Buck on 21 Below

Samantha Buck's doc tells the story of an American family who must try to reconcile their tumultuous history in the face of personal crisis. See it at TC Doc Series on Monday, June 14.

TC Doc Series: 21 Below


21 Below is the story of an American family who must try to reconcile their tumultuous history in the face of personal crisis. Will they make amends in the face of one daughter's personal tragedy? Director Samantha Buck talks about the impetus for the film, the importance of its message, and the challenges of documentary.


21 Below will have its NYC premiere at the Tribeca Cinemas Doc Series on June 14.

  Please describe the story you tell in 21 BELOW.


Samantha Buck: 21 Below is an intimate and personal portrait of an average middle class American family in crisis and the compromises required for reconciliation. It follows a young woman going home to face family wounds she had hoped to escape. Sharon, who now lives outside of New York City, is pregnant with her first child when she learns that the 14-month-old daughter of her younger sister, Maya, is dying from a rare genetic disease. It's then she realizes that she can't start a family of her own until she tries to help the family she’s left behind. What inspired you to tell that story?


SB: I made this film with two remarkable women who, like me, were searching for a personal face to put on political issues we were investigating. The story found us.


In the spring of 2004, my mother invited a few friends and me to come to D.C., for The March for Women’s Lives. One of the women I invited was future partner and producer Jenny Maguire. I had decided to bring a camera crew with me. The women we heard speak that day are what started us on a journey that would eventually lead to Buffalo, NY. We heard Molly Ivins, Ann Richards, and Sarah Weddington; they asked us to enjoy the march—but reminded us it is not just about one day but what you do afterward.


I read an article about the 30 biggest feminists under 30 and decided that we should document their level of activism during the 2004 Presidential campaign. One of my friends recommended I bring on board a young woman who lived upstate. She was in production and involved with Women’s Reproductive rights. That is how we met Sharon.


As Jenny, Sharon, and I spent the summer documenting these young women, Sharon talked about her problems with her sister. She was in my apartment when she learned her niece Maya had Tay-Sachs disease. By the end of the summer, it became clear that the real story lay in Sharon’s family walls.


TC Doc Series: 21 Below What do you want people to take away from the film?


SB: I think the story is universal, and I hope the audience experiences something personal while watching it—that they can put themselves inside the family walls. The relationships and attitudes we have inside our homes affect who we are when we walk out the door. Hopefully this film will make people think and reflect on how they communicate, love, and accept one another. What was the biggest challenge in getting your film made? How did you overcome it?


SB: Making a doc is nearly impossible. Every stage has its complications. It is a constant struggle to find funding and even more to get the right kind of distribution. But what I found most difficult was the personal and emotional ramifications of bringing a camera into someone’s home. The subject was one of my partners, and wearing the hats of both filmmaker and friend was not easy to negotiate.


Sharon’s family did not ask for cameras in their homes; they did it because she asked—and it proved to be an extremely painful process. As a filmmaker, you are obligated to tell the story fairly and honestly. Exposing every side of them—the beautiful and ugly—was very difficult.  We were lucky that Sharon was so brave and trusting: I was given the freedom to tell the story and was never asked to cut anything from the film that could be perceived as “unfavorable.” She has said that the film is painful to watch, but it is fair. That is the best compliment we could receive. What's up next for you as a director?
SB: I'm extremely excited about my next project. It is about one classroom of teenaged students with autism in the public school system, and the underpaid teachers and administrators who make great sacrifices in their lives to teach them. The film is an intimate look into the world that eight students, one teacher and one teacher's aid create together inside their classroom. It will reveal faces not often seen in the media in relation to autism: teenagers from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, who, more often than not, do not have the resources to get private help with treating autism.


TC Doc Series: 21 Below What do you currently find most inspiring in today's film world?
SB: Money has become less accessible, but thanks to the video revolution and new models of distribution, almost anyone can pick up a camera and put their work out there in some capacity. It’s an exciting time. In general I have found the economic crisis and lack of jobs have sparked people to be more motivated by enthusiasm and passion than by their pockets.
Over the last year, I have met and seen so many first time filmmakers who have made fresh and interesting films. I find it incredibly inspiring. It is a bit like the Wild West right now—the Wild West with HD cams and YouTube. What makes 21 BELOW a must-see?


SB: This sounds unbelievably cheesy, but I like films that make me look deep inside myself and force me to question decisions, situations, or people in my life.


We have found that the film starts a dialog that continues long after the audience leaves the theater. Two examples have stuck with me. A Finnish woman came up to me in tears after a screening in Helsinki. She had been unable to express herself or cry after a very tragic event in her life. The film allowed her to open up a part of herself that she had cut off.


Another audience member has become an inspiration and huge supporter of the film. He is a man who suffers from Late-Onset Tay Sachs who went to our screening in Woodstock. After seeing the film, he wanted to help us push our outreach initiative and nurture our partnership with the National Tay Sachs and Allied Diseases to raise Tay Sachs awareness. Any film that could move audience members to make changes in their lives or inspire them to get involved, in my opinion, is a must-see.<


Monday, June 14, 2010
8:00 pm

Director Samantha Buck and producers Jenny Maguire and Sophia Raab Downs will be in attendance.


The Tribeca Cinemas bar will be open before and after the screening—stop in for a drink and mingle with other movie lovers.


Learn more about the film on its official website.


Watch the trailer:


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