Monica and David airs Thursday night on HBO at 8-9:15 p.m. E.T.
Monica and David explores the marriage of two adults with Down syndrome, capturing their storybook wedding and the challenges of early married life. Here's an interview with first-time director Alexandra Codina (photo right, right), who is Monica's cousin. This interview was shared with BLOOM by BLT and Associates, a social media firm in Los Angeles that is promoting the HBO premiere. I don't get HBO so I hope one of our readers will watch tomorrow night and give us their impressions.
When you approached your cousin Monica and her fiancée David about filming their wedding and post-marriage lives, what was their initial reaction?
Alexandra Codina: They were incredibly open, particularly Monica and David themselves. Throughout the making of the film, they loved having the camera around and seemed to feel understood and acknowledged.
What were their parents' reactions?
Alexandra Codina: Monica's mother, my aunt Maria Elena, was also open. She and Monica were the first people who I sat down to talk about filming. Maria Elena understood from the begining that there was a bigger picture to why the story needed to be told. The challenge came later on, once we realized what a big part of the story she is, and that it wasn't just about filming David and Monica. She hates having her picture taken, so following her with a camera during a chaotic move was her worst nightmare. So negotiating shoot days was tough; but once the camera was there, she was very open and didn't put up any walls.
What has it been like for Monica and David now that the film is out and playing to audiences around the world?
Alexandra Codina: Monica and David are total hams and they love the attention. During Q&As they keep talking about how much they enjoy being stars and famous, and Monica wants to become an actress. But really, I think they are just thrilled to feel such acceptance from the audience and they've become more bold in asking for what they really want. Right now, the focus is finding jobs, which they've asked for my help with.
Did the film follow the course you imagined it would?
Alexandra Codina: I could never have imagined the course this film would take. HBO was always a dream, and it's still surreal that I'll be tuning in to see my film there in a few days. But throughout the making of the film, I worried that people who don't have a personal connection to disability would not be interested; and that the film industry would consider this too sweet a story, and not serious enough. But the embrace of the film makes me incredibly happy, because it's an acceptance of Monica and David themselves.
Why did you begin at the wedding?
Alexandra Codina: This was purely circumstantial. It only hit me a few weeks before the wedding that there was a story to be told. My friend, David Fenster, and I began filming and I had no idea where the story would go from there. Once the editing began, the idea of starting with a climactic event was horrifying—where does the story go from here? The move seemed equally bizarre, but ended up becoming the crux of the story's evolution, and a foil for better understanding Monica and David. Editing was key with this film because of the challenging story structure, and that was a very collaborative process with the editors (Mary Manhardt and Paola Gutierrez), and my friend/mentor, Deborah Dickson.
Why do you think there is so much misunderstanding and social stigma surrounding people with disabilities?
Alexandra Codina: I think it's people's lack of personal experience with disability that is most challenging. If you have a family member with a disability, then it feels very natural when you meeet someone else who does. And I made the film hoping to give people that opportunity—the intimate experience of spending time in Monica and David's world, and realizing just how similar we all are. Once you relate to people on a human, emotional level, it's much harder to dismiss them. And it's also important to see the individuality of each person and not try to define people in one big category; that's confusing and encourages stereotypes and lack of acceptance.
In what ways has society progressed in its approach and understanding of people with disabilities?
Alexandra Codina: I think we've made huge progress, although there is much more to come. The biggest change is understanding that people with disabilities should not be isolated from the rest of the world. For children, that means inclusive learning environments, and for adults that includes jobs and independent living. And while it's a work in progress on all these fronts, it seems that we're most behind when it comes to acknowledging the adulthood of people with disabilities. Marriage and sexuality seem to be taboo, and stories like Monica and David's aren't as common as they should be. The outside world needs to continue to evolve, but families need to let go and be part of that change. Giving adults with disabilities the opportunity to be self-sufficient also removes that stigma of burden. Funny enough, people with disabilities want to work and be out there in the world, we're the ones holding them back.
What was the most unexpected thing that happened while you were shooting?
The letter to Monica's biological father. In beginning the film, I was personally curious to get beyond Monica and David's seemingly happy exterior to understand what they truly think and want. This was a powerful moment because she directly expressed negative emotions, and directed those to the person who'd hurt her. David's reaction was also very beautiful, because they clearly have a whole world of private interaction which even I am not privy to. He knew how she felt before she'd written the letter, and knew exactly how to comfort her.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
Alexandra Codina: I hope that people will see Monica, David and other people with disabilities as individuals. Not heroes, nor victims, but people who are striving to lead ordinary lives.