by Len Lear
Erdenheim filmmaker Paul Buck, who was inducted into the Philadelphia Senior Law Center Hall of Fame on May 4 (along with his filmmaking partner of more than 40 years, Art Ciocco, of Devon), has made scores of films from PBS documentaries to productions for historical and educational organizations, environmental causes, women’s groups, medical schools, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Longwood Gardens, Drexel University and more.
But of all of those ambitious film projects, the scariest had to be those that dealt with extreme right-wing racists and anti-Semites. “One of the hardest things to do,” Buck told us last week, “was to interview subjects with whom you totally disagree and keep your own opinions to yourself while encouraging your subjects to talk. I interviewed a leader in the National White Peoples Party (Nazi) who came to the door when we knocked with a gun in his hand and a Nazi uniform on and sat in front of a huge swastika with photos of Hitler on the walls.
“Another interview for the film ‘Equality’ was for a KKK rally nearby in Bensalem, held at a children’s dance studio. We had written to an address in Reading about connecting with the KKK and heard nothing for over a month and suddenly received a letter telling us where and when to be.
“KKK members descended from all over the east coast, decorated the walls of the studio filled with photos of little girls in tutus with their KKK banners and transformed the place into a Klan den. As I talked with the Klan member, who was the chosen spokesperson, he changed from his street clothes into his Klan whites.
“I would advise those making documentaries to encourage and provide your subjects the freedom to speak freely and then learn to LISTEN carefully to what they are saying and to follow their train of thought to unknown places that you might never have considered.”
Paul, 83 (Art is 79) still lives in a house his father, Frank, built in 1925. Paul graduated from Springfield Township High School and the Rochester Institute of Technology, majoring in photography and film, and did graduate work at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. In 1973 he and Art Ciocco started VISIONaries, their film production company.
Their first film as a team, entitled “Should the Lady Take a Chance,” won an award and dealt with the issue of whether or not Atlantic City should initiate legalized gambling in an attempt to revitalize the city. One viewer complained that the film did not tell viewers which side to choose, pro or con. “It was too balanced,” said Paul.
During the succeeding four decades, Paul and Art always made films that had strong issues-oriented content. For example, a one-hour documentary for PBS in 1975 entitled “Equality,” which was about the inequality of people dealing with issues of race, women’s rights, economic rights and ageism, won eight national awards. But Paul says the film he is most proud of was “The Quiet Revolution,” created for the Brandywine Conservancy on environment issues.
Possibly the most unusual film made by Buck and Ciocco was in Micronesia in 1975. Buck had previously made a film with Euell Gibbons, the famous author and wild food expert, on a remote uninhabited island off the coast of Maine.
“A while later he was talking a small group of people to Micronesia to show how well you could live off the land because of the bounty of food all around. We ended up in Truk Lagoon and then went on to Tomaton Island, where about 150 people lived in thatched houses, built dugout canoes and lived essentially off the land surrounded by coconut and breadfruit trees, sparkling seas and a very simple life.”
Is it possible for Buck to know how much change the duo’s films have helped to bring about? “We never know all who see our films, so it is hard to calculate what precise change they may bring about,” he replied. “Some fundraising films raised money, and others changed attitudes. People occasionally come up after a showing in which we are present and tell us that the film had a strong impact on them.
“Good reviews or awards give us some feedback, but you always wish for more. In some cases for the Senior Law Center (SLC), folks would say on camera how important the center was in saving their homes from loss or protecting them from physical abuse or helping to become primary caregiver to their grandchildren in the absence of parents. They gave us immediate feedback. Judges would tell our cameras how important the SLC was in negotiating a wide range of problems.”
The duo’s close relationship with SLC, which provides free legal services to senior citizens in need, came about from the fact that Paul’s daughter, Karen, was that organization’s executive director. “It was natural that she would ask us to help promote the center,” said Paul. “It also followed our interests in doing good work about which we cared.”
Although Paul and Art both recently retired, the Hall of Fame award has significant meaning for them because “we have worked hard to pass along our devotion to the filmmaking process.” Both of them have taught film — Paul at the University of Pennsylvania (1980 to 2010) and Art at Temple University (1973 to 1979) — and they continue to help the Senior Law Center.
In his spare time, Paul likes to hike, garden, read, take photos and do some wood sculpture. In addition to his daughter, Karen, his family consists of wife, Peggy, and sons Steve and Greg.