Sarcoma is a rare cancer that arises from the cells of the lymphatic and circulatory systems, and from connective tissue like bone and cartilage. According to the National Cancer Institute SEER database, there are less than 20,000 cases diagnosed worldwide every year. It is what’s called an orphan disease, which means that given the low numbers of people who acquire it, the pharmaceutical industry chooses to bypass funding for research and a cure because there is no profit to be made.
So when the late James Ragan was diagnosed with osteosarcoma when he was 13, he went to work raising money and awareness for childhood cancer research, despite knowing he was not going to reach adulthood. During the last year of his life, he decided to bypass treatment and live his life to the fullest extreme he could. This journey was captured in the full-length documentary Until 20, which was produced and directed by award-winning filmmakers Geraldine Moriba and former Garden City resident Jamila Paksima. Moriba, who is a sarcoma survivor, learned of Ragan and his efforts when she was going to Houston-based MD Anderson Cancer Center for treatment and heard about this remarkable young man and the work he was doing to raise money for awareness. At that point, she reached out to her old NBC News colleague to get involved with the project.“His story hadn’t been told. [Geraldine] works at CNN now and I have my own independent production company and she approached me to see if I’d be willing to do this with her and him,” Paksima explained. “So we connected with him, took a trip out and met the family. Once we learned the kind of access we were going to get, we knew we had the making of a real film.”
In getting up close and personal with the Ragan family, Paksima and Moriba were able to film their Corpus Christi-based subject halting treatment, the upbeat and tireless way he handled the disease while doing what he could to raise money and advocacy for childhood cancer and the extraordinary support system his family provided.
Another insight you get into Ragan is how he turned his 16th birthday into a toga party where he charged admission and raised more than $20,000 that he donated to cancer research. Or how as an upcoming tennis player at the age of 13, he transitioned to golf and became good enough to make Rice University’s Division 1 team. This personal connection made everything that much more difficult for Paksima.
“The hardest part of this film was getting connected to a family that was going through the most difficult thing they’ll face in their life—losing a child. I think we were also taking a big financial risk to do it,” she said. “People say they’ll stick with you, but we didn’t know them for a long time. At any point, they could have said no and changed their mind about whether they could handle having us around. So there was that risk. But I think more so, it was really hard having those super-hard difficult conversations, knowing that he was going to die.”
Paksima’s path to making such a moving film can be traced back to when she and her family fled the 1979 Iranian Revolution and landed in Garden City. Arriving just in time to enroll in Garden City High School, Paksima applied to Inez Speyers’ drama program. It eventually led to a decade working on NBC’s Dateline with anchors like Maria Shriver and Tom Brokaw. Paksima eventually struck out on her own and founded Paksima Productions, an independent company she’s run for 14 years.
“Mrs. Speyers at Garden City High School had this directing program that you had to get selected into as a freshman. I think the first year, you’re called the gopher and by the end of your graduation year, you were a director. I was chosen to direct one of those plays,” she fondly recalled. “I do think my high school experience and being involved in all of the theater arts really was the springboard for showing me that I had the creativity in me and could make a career out of it and I love that. I’m one of the few people who knew what they wanted to do and am still doing what I wanted to do from back then. It’s so rare.”
And while Paksima’s next project is an eight-part PBS miniseries that she’s not allowed to talk about, Until 20 is still being screened at various film festivals, with the most recent being the Long Island International Film Expo. But with September being Cancer Awareness Month, Paksima is hoping schools and organizations will take the opportunity to host private screenings.
“HBO is going to hold a special screening for our film. One of our hopes with this film is that people will hold screenings of it around the country. We’re touring the film and having lots of discussions. There’s a lot of information on our website on how to host a screening. We can assist with community screening to keep James’ legacy alive,” she said. “This film is a great little wake-up call for young people to realize that they have a choice to live completely differently. That, I really do hope, is another benefit of having audiences see this film. A lot of people are afraid to feel, but I think once they get in the door, sit and see it, it’s really worth the journey to experience what the depth of love and life is about.”
Visit www.until20.com to find out more about the film or about hosting screenings of the film to raise awareness of childhood cancer.