Route '21 Below' QEW (not BQE) to HotDocs
My mom and I drove from my hometown of Grand Island, New York (an actual Island between Buffalo and Niagara Falls), to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Friday to attend HotDocs (my first trip back since 2006). At the end of our day, I stopped at a gas station in downtown Toronto to ask for directions to get back onto the BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) heading towards Niagara Falls. I quickly corrected myself and asked for the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way) instead, realizing I'm not in Queens/NYC (where I actually call home now) anymore. How ironic my confusion, as the feature documentary we saw earlier that afternoon, 21 Below, takes place in Buffalo, "The Queen City" as it's nicknamed, and also in a sense, questions just exactly where home is, especially in one of its leading characters, Sharon, who now lives outside of New York City, but goes to Buffalo to help take care of her family.
While touching on issues of health, race and economic hardships, the heart of 21 Below is a personal and intimate journey of familial relationships, which at times is both humorous and heart breaking. Directed by Samantha Buck, 21 Below centers on a suburban Buffalo family headed by matriarch Peggy whose daughters all live very different lives, whether it's eldest Sharon, who lives five and half hours away with her husband Jason, or youngest Karen, who lives in a low-income neighborhood with her former gang-member African-American boyfriend Courtney and his daughter. Karen has children of her own, one of whom has a rare genetic disorder known as Tay-Sachs Disease. Sharon, who is pregnant with her first child, comes to town to help Karen take care of Maya, and also to help mend Karen's relationship with always worried Mom Peggy, showing that the ties that bind a family can either bring everyone together or tear everyone away.
Samantha, Sharon and producer Jennie Maguire, spoke after the film during a Q&A. When asked by the moderator what the process was of making the film and how they all met, Samantha said it all started back in 2004. The three of them originally wanted to make a film about young feminists during the 2004 U.S. Presidential campaign. Karen was in Samantha's apartment when baby Maya was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs. It was then that they had a gut moment to write about this, and three weeks later they were in Buffalo.
Where did the title 21 Below originate from, an audience member asks. Samantha said it stemmed from the City of Buffalo itself and the stigma of it being a cold city. That and the fact that Karen already had three kids by the time she was 21. But the deeper meaning behind the title is the temperature within a family's walls and their desperation to communicate with one another.
With Karen being so central in the film, another member of the audience asked if the film is meant to be about her or the family. Samantha replied that she always thought the main protagonist was the family itself. She wanted the audience to relate to the family. The situation with Maya was an extraordinary circumstance, and the rest is typical of most families.
Sharon was asked how it felt to see such an intimate aspect of her life on a large screen with strangers, and what was her family's motivation to make this film. She exclaimed that it was bizarre and not particularly pleasant. Everyone was hesitant to do it. Sharon's father who was in the audience said it was extremely uneasy for him to watch the film, but he was very proud of their work.
One final comment from the audience was how the film seemed to capture a great sense of place, that being Buffalo. I agree. There were many locations I recognized from growing up in and around the city and its suburbs, but even if I were not from there, I would get a good understanding that there's more than the stereotype of the chilly, snowy winters of Buffalo. It is also a place of warmth and comfort, even in the hardest of times. And while I don't call it home anymore, I will always be drawn back to it.