“What would you do if you knew you were living the last year of your life?”
That is the tagline of “Until 20,” a documentary following the life of James Ragan slated to premiere Oct. 30 at the Austin Film Festival. Ragan, who attended Rice in 2011 at Duncan College, lived with terminal cancer for almost half of his life and passed away in February 2014. Directed by Geraldine Moriba Meadows and Jamila Paksima Rowell, with many contributions from Ragan himself, the film explores how he was able to make the most of his limited time.
At age 13, Ragan was diagnosed with a rare type of pediatric osteosarcoma. Since then, he and his family dealt with the disease the best they could, going through rounds of various treatments at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Co-Director Meadows, who herself undergoes treatment for cancer similar to that of Ragan’s, first met him through an oncologist at the cancer center. Ragan’s sister Mecklin Ragan (Duncan ’13) described her brother’s enthusiastic response when Meadows first proposed to make a documentary on his life.
“We’ve always been a very private family … and James really wanted to do it,” Mecklin said. “We all talked it over a couple days, everybody thought about it, and James still wanted to do it … and that was kind of how it all started.”
For those who knew Ragan, it is virtually impossible not to mention his sheer optimism. Despite the toll his treatment placed on him, Ragan always insisted on pursuing his academics and playing golf, among other hobbies. He was even known to enter the golf course with an IV bag supplying his chemotherapy while he played. Co-Director Rowell said he was taken by surprise by how often Ragan displayed positivity despite his circumstances.
“He never seemed sad, he never seemed overwhelmed by this situation,” Rowell said. “And we would keep asking him questions, and the guy won’t crack.”
On any given day, Ragan could always count on his support team — his family. In particular, his parents played an exceptional role in his life by stepping back from making decisions for him. Mecklin said she admired her parents for granting their son the freedom to take agency of his own life.
“I think it’s very admirable that [my parents] were able to sit back and let their 15-, 16-, 17-year-old son make his own decisions when it came to his care,” Mecklin said. “That’s not something that happens all the time … It’s so much easier to make that decision for your child — I think it took a lot of willpower.”
Rice played a large role in supporting Ragan. His sister noted the generosity and assistance provided by the administration, their college master, professors and golf coach Justin Emil.
Not every day was smooth sailing, and he took time to process his emotions. His sister described a coping mechanism he developed and constantly referred to.
“One of the things James loved to say … was that if you go to MD Anderson, and you’re sitting there more than five minutes, you look to your left and to your right and there’s always someone that has it worse than you do,” Mecklin said.
Ragan’s “glass half full” mentality manifested in his project, the Triumph Over Kid Cancer Foundation, which is a foundation that fundraises for pediatric cancer research and raises awareness for kids with pediatric cancer. Unfortunately, pediatric cancer is a severely unexplored field of research, mainly because pharmaceutical companies cannot afford to invest in rare diseases; some of Ragan’s treatments have not changed for 40 years, while others were not intended for bone cancer or for children. He attended many funerals of the children he had met at the hospital and befriended.
Filmmakers Meadows and Powell knew of the challenges they faced. Not only did they make a conscious decision as to not influence the story while filming, but they also took careful measures to not be manipulative in the editing room. The result was authenticity.
“You cannot make this stuff up,” Powell said. “With documentary filmmaking, you get to share an authentic experience that most people don’t get to experience.”
Struck by a rare disease, Ragan gave the world two even rarer gifts: the documentary on his life and his foundation, Triumph Over Kid Cancer, now helmed by his sister.
“Until 20” will show at festivals this fall and a screening at Rice is scheduled for the spring.