POV: Tell us a little bit, for those audience members that haven’t seen Best Kept Secret, what the film is about and what you hope to accomplish with the airing on PBS.
Samantha Buck: It’s about a special education teacher, Janet Mino, who teaches in a school in Newark, New Jersey, in a self-contained classroom of six young men who are all in the autism spectrum — and they’re all aging out at the same time. At 21, a special needs child has to leave the public school system. And [Best Kept Secret is] about the pursuit to find a quality life or placement for them before they have to leave the school environment.
POV: Tell us a little bit about what drew you to the subject matter? Do you have someone in your family that has autism?
Buck: I do not. And neither does Danielle, but after making this film I think we both realized that everybody’s connected to this in some capacity. Everybody knows someone who knows someone on the spectrum. I didn’t think that I was connected to it in that way until after I made the film and all of a sudden I knew my neighbor had a kid on the spectrum. Someone in my mom’s office has a kid on the spectrum. But the original inspiration behind this — I was in the film festival circuit with my first movie and Danielle was an associate producer on it. There was a lot of movies about autism, mostly centered around cures or causes, usually dealing with the same demographic: young, predominantly Caucasian and of certain financial means. It got me thinking about what happens if you don’t have a ton of money and you have a child on the spectrum. There has to be somebody older who’s on the spectrum. I had a friend at the time who had started teaching a self-contained classroom in a public school in New York City. I saw how it affected her life in a positive way. And those two things kind of came together and all of a sudden I found myself trying to get into the New York public schools to try to explore what the public schools were doing. And it was through that process that I met a parent who told me that her child was about to fall off the cliff. Whether you liked the public schools or hated them, when your child falls off the cliff it’s even worse. And I had never heard of that, much less knew it was a euphemism for when they turn 21 and there’s no place to go, and people just disappear from the system. So that centered us in what we wanted to make the movie about. And then we ended up focusing on Newark and Danielle came to a meeting with me in Newark. I dragged her in.
Danielle DiGiacomo: It was actually Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey who’s a friend of Sam’s family in D.C. He suggested, after she went through a year and a half of trying to get into New York public schools and then got shut down because of a change in leadership, what about New Jersey? Knowing the story and the demographics she wanted to focus on were in the inner-city, we went in and she asked me to come with her to meet with the director of communications for the Newark Public School System. She had Googled and found this remarkable school, JFK, and basically suggested it to them. Within a week we were meeting with the principal of JFK, who literally was like, go ahead, just go everywhere.
Buck: Walk around the school.
DiGiacomo: Walk around the school, it’s totally open, you’ll love it. We went into her office and she pulled in two of the teachers in the school, the two teachers that had classrooms with kids on the autism spectrum. Janet Mino was one of those teachers and you know the rest is history. As soon as she walked in the room, she was just so magnetic and caring. And not to mention that all six of her students were aging out at the same time. So there was a natural story arc that you know we were led to by fate. Two weeks later we were filming.
POV: How would you describe the film stylistically? Tell us a little bit about your aesthetic choices.
Buck: I would say it is, I guess, cinema verité. It’s very much fly on the wall, observational, which is really what we wanted to do. I’d seen a lot of films about young men and women on the autism spectrum where there was always an expert telling you and diagnosing them, or explaining what the cause was or what they think the cure was, and all of these films by the way were amazing and I cried like a baby. But I really, what we really wanted to capture who these young men were, their personalities, their behavior, and get people to know them by watching them in the classroom setting. Watching them with Mino. They’re also nonverbal. I didn’t want somebody, an expert or a teacher, just talking about them on screen in some interview and not letting them speak for themselves because even though they’re nonverbal, I think that Quran, Robert, and Erik speak for themselves in the film. So that was very much the choice to try to respect them as human beings as much as possible and stand back, and really capture what the actual environment is in that place. I thought it would help with Mino’s journey too, to be there as she’s actually experiencing this and not just talking about it later.
POV: With everything that’s happening in the public education system, we rarely look at what’s working and what is working well. This does tell that story of dedication that public school teachers have. What lessons do you think other special education programs can glean from this example?
Buck: I think most of the special education programs that I’ve seen, most of them are doing a pretty great job. I mean I think the point is that it’s still a safe haven for these young men and these young women who have special needs. My experience at JFK was that they do the most they can with the resources that they have. This is set up specifically for special needs and not every public high school or public elementary school or junior high is like that. Everybody could use more funding. Everybody could use more money. I think if anything, there should be more preparation so when these young men and these young women are about to age out, that they’re not completely lost. I know Mino did that. What she did was rare. I don’t think most teachers go out and start looking at every work program and recreation program and help the parents find placement. But maybe that’s something that as they’re getting older, like 18, 19, 20, 21, if the schools were set up that they started that process then and they helped the parents and helped prepare the kids, that would be a great idea actually.
POV: Everyone should have a Janet Mino in their lives. She’s a true inspiration. Did you ever see Janet just want to give up the struggle? She’s got a tough road and she seems like she just never gives up. But did you ever see that, did you ever capture that on tape?
DiGiacomo: I think in Mino you have the classic idealist who really doesn’t give up — gets frustrated, but her frustration just makes her fight more. And you can see that in her relationship with Cynthia Pullen-Thompson, who’s the school’s social worker, who’s amazing and I love her. But she’s very much you know the realist who’s been through it 20 years and has a more even-keeled realist perspective. In their conversations, Mino would get frustrated and want the best for these guys and Pullen-Thompson would say, they’ll be okay, Mino, you just have to let go. The dynamic between those two women really shows the two kind of perspectives you can take. Mino is a truly tireless, idealistic, hopeful person. So if [the right program] is not out there, she’s going to do it herself.
Buck: She’s very serious about opening up the Valentine Center, named after her mother. And instead of feeling defeated and there’s nothing she can do, she is going to go out there and try to make this program she couldn’t find a reality. And if this works, maybe Mino’s center could be something for every inner-city. She’s making this program for an inner-city, which is so important, cause there’s nothing really in Newark at this point.
DiGiacomo: Right, and her program will combine recreational with work programs. She thinks it’s important to continue educating them and giving them a good, fun quality of life, but also teach them life skills and have them go out into the community and have jobs.
Buck: And be part of the community.
POV: For audience members that watch POV that know nothing about autism or don’t have children, what should they come away with after watching the film?
DiGiacomo: What I always come back to, and the reason why I think this is such a universal story, is I don’t have anyone in my family on the autism spectrum. But I have a cousin who is a month older than me who was my best friend growing up, who at age fifteen was diagnosed with schizophrenia and since that time has been shuffled from home to home, to institution, to senior citizens homes, because that’s all his family could afford. And they’re middle class and you know every day is a fight and a struggle for them. And I think that what the story is really about is what happens when any child and any loved one transitions from childhood to adulthood and becomes independent. Even if you have a kid or a loved one who is going to an Ivy League school, you still are going to worry about them. So what happens to kids and people you love who have an issue or have any kind of disability, and what can we do to make sure that everyone has a quality of life and has a good adulthood. And not forget about them just because they’re different or differently abled.
Buck: Yes, and that’s why when people watch this film, when they walk away, I hope what the film does is that everyone feels connected to these subjects and these characters like they would to any person. So if you’re emotionally connected, you care about an Erik Taylor or Robert Casper or a Quran Keyes, because they’re not just these young men on the autism spectrum. They’re hilarious. They’re smart. They’re funny. They get angry. They have emotions. They’re human beings and they’re all so completely different from one another. They’re such distinctive, different human beings that the hope is that the film really gets people emotionally connected and gets them caring about all of these guys. So even if you don’t know somebody who is on the autism spectrum or think you don’t know, because statistically you probably do, you can walk away from this film and you know Erik and you know Quran and you know Robert, so you should care.