The first question I get about Best Kept Secret is usually "What is your personal relationship to autism?" Until making this film, I always thought the answer was "None." What I learned is that we are all connected to it. Autism is part of who we are as a society. Across the country, young adults who turn 21 are pushed out of the school system. They often end up with nowhere to go; they simply disappear from productive society. This is what educators call "falling off the cliff."
While I was on the festival circuit with my last feature documentary, 21 Below, I saw many films about young children with autism. These films were moving and important, but they only spoke of a limited population—predominately Caucasians from financially stable families. But what happens to children with autism who grow up in other circumstances?
I began to research public schools in inner-city areas all over the United States, and the best kind of accident of fate brought me to JFK in Newark, N.J. and Janet Mino—a force of nature who changed my life. She has been a constant reminder to have faith, value every member of society and believe in people’s potential.
Best Kept Secret on the surface could seem like a straightforward vérité film, but we tried to accomplish something different—a subtle and layered story that takes on issues of race, class, poverty and disability through a different lens than the one to which many people are accustomed. My intention has always been to make a human, universal story—a character study that would subtly engage viewers and draw them into the lives and continuing sagas of the main protagonists.
Making this film has been inspiring, and at times heartbreaking. The entire crew feels lucky to have been able to spend time with Eric, Quran, Robert, Matthew, Kareem and Rahamid. My hope is that the film allows the audience to get to know them and become personally invested in the futures of Ms. Mino and her class. I want viewers to see past the "autism" label and see these six young men as the interesting, funny, mischievous, hormonal and loving people that they are.
The most difficult part of making the documentary has been watching what has happened to some of our subjects after aging out of the public school system. Already, after just a few months, Robert has been kicked out of his adult daycare program and now lacks any options aside from being neglected at home or institutionalized. This is why it is vital to tell this story. While Best Kept Secret may not help all of our boys, I hope it will pave the road for better options for the young men and women who come after them. I want the same thing for these young people that I want for any young person: a chance at quality of life.
— Samantha Buck, Director