For 21 Below Film
Every now and again an event or an idea occurs that takes on a life of its own:
In the spring of 2004, Samantha Buck invited a group of young women to join her and her mother at the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., and decided to document the event. This group included Jenny Maguire, an old acquaintance from the New York City audition scene. Everyone was inspired by the speeches of Ann Richards, Molly Ivins and Sarah Weddington. Ann Richards gave the women “Marching Orders” to make a real difference in the 2004 presidential campaign. While a euphoric day was captured, it was not enough. After the march, a reporter, who heard about the shoot, called and suggested a young woman who lived upstate be brought in to help. Sophia Raab Downs was involved in women’s rights issues and had a background in production. She came on board and our summer of inspiration began.
As three women from different artistic backgrounds with no documentary experience, we were fearless, inspired and more than a little naïve. We began following a handful of young female activists, seeking an answer to the question, “Will a generation of women risk losing their rights by being politically inactive?” We spent the summer months traveling from one event to another. We attended and filmed the DNC and the RNC, lobbied in Albany for the morning after pill, interviewed young activists at Planned Parenthood and Naral, and were granted an hour-long interview with Governor Ann Richards.
While we were connected to ‘issues,’ we knew it was vital to make a film that also told a personal story. We wanted to involve our audience in crucial life choices and struggles in a ‘real’ way, rather than through over-politicized jargon. We came to realize that the personal story we had been searching for was unfolding inside Sophia’s family walls. As it turned out, Sophia’s family was very directly dealing with the same obstacles and choices we strove to illuminate. It was a startling realization, and big leap for us to turn the camera on one of our own. 21 BELOW was born.
We found initial production funding the very next day, hired a two-man crew, and began planning the first trip to Buffalo, New York, to meet Sophia’s family. Over the next seven months, we traveled upstate multiple times to capture her family in a time of crisis. The members of Sophia’s family were not clamoring to tell their stories. Rather, they were intent on trying to get through a very difficult time, which allowed the filming to achieve a rare and unique intimacy.
Once the camera started rolling, we did not turn back, even though there were many times we wished we could. To say the process was difficult at times would be an understatement. One member of the family, a little girl named Maya, held us together. Maya had been diagnosed with Taye Sachs disease, a terminal illness, and was growing sicker by the day. We knew that somehow she was the innocent bystander keeping a watchful hand on the filmmakers and the story.
After the initial period of shooting, we lost funding and were left with debt and 120 hours of footage. We spent the next two years watching the footage over and over, shaping the story, keeping creditors at bay, and trying to find just enough money to keep the film alive. At times it seemed like finishing the film was impossible. In October of 2006, Maya passed away, and we felt more compelled than ever before to finish the film. A year later, ‘miracle’ money came together for a final shoot. Our unfinished film was accepted into the IFP Market, where we were fortunate enough to meet our future executive producers, and obtain funding for editing and post-production.
Four and half years later we invite you in, as Sophia did, to take a close and incredibly intimate look behind closed doors. Her family didn’t wish for us to come into their lives — to be part of what at times was an incredibly painful process. They agreed to let us into their homes because their daughter/sister, our partner/friend, asked them to. For all of their patience and acceptance, we are eternally grateful. Our lives are forever changed because they allowed us to be witness to theirs.
With utmost respect,
Samantha Buck, Jenny Maguire, and Sophia Raab Downs