Tribeca's jurors surprised a trio of family members with the Best Documentary Feature award for their film Monica and David. It's no wonder. Everyone in it and everything about this documentary shouts "winner." Despite the touchy subject matter - two people with Downs syndrome who fall in love and marry - audiences see and hear how love is carried out between people whose innocence and capacity for love keep relationships going. It's extremely rare for intellectually disadvantaged people to marry. But with prodigious support from their parents, this couple proves it can succeed. They've been married for five years now and live with Monica's parents. Also successful are the medical and social advances that allow people with Downs syndrome a life expectancy of 60 years. (In 1983, this number was 25.)
Alexandra Codina/Photo by Leslie Hassler
We would never have seen this deeply intimate family film had the director, Alexandra "Ali" Codina, 32, not been Monica's 1st cousin. As a member of this family of Cuban-Americans, she was able to wander through Monica's parents' Miami, FL home with her camera.
Even though I'd been working around film for several years, I never thought of filming my family until we learned Monica and David wanted to marry and have a big wedding. That's when I thought this would work as a film. I started filming five days later, shortly before their wedding. I kept filming for about a year.
The sweetness in Codina's film mirrors her personality and those of everyone in the film. The characters include Monica's mom, Maria Elena; her stepfather, Bob; and David's mom, Maria. We learn more about the mentally-challenged than we ever knew. For one, they want the same things we all want--love, work, and independence. And we see there is a bright side to even this story. But Codina doesn't whitewash the painful side. She films Monica with awkward classmates at her special school. She catches David and Monica working with their handicapped friends at their one-day-a-week job. They're folding papers and stuffing envelopes, sometimes with difficulty. And we see them coping with some hard family setbacks after the wedding. First, the family moved an hour north, to Hollywood Beach, to retire. The move totally disrupted the young couple's organized life. They lost friends. Marie Elena explained, "Both Monica and David dislike change. They want order, want things to be neat and in the same place as yesterday. Monica will place her brush in a drawer just so, then slowly open the drawer to be sure the brush didn't move when she closed the drawer."
The next upset was when David was hospitalized and nearly died from severe diabetes no one knew he had. But with patient training from Bob, he learned to test his blood sugar and give himself insulin shots.
The bright side includes several instinctual qualities Monica and David possess--qualities often weak or lacking in people considered normal. Marie tells a story that reveals her son's sureness of purpose. David told her he was madly in love with Monica but had been rejected because she had another boyfriend. She told him "You have to respect that, so you'd better get over Monica." David's undaunted reply became his mantra: "That's my girl, and I'm going to marry her someday."
Monica and David/Photo by Leslie Hassler
Despite knowing he is handicapped, the affable David is supremely sure of himself. Watching his dancing style at their wedding celebration, you wish you looked that good on the dance floor. We might also wish for his constant smile and positive attitude. Not from neediness but from pure affection, he often wraps Monica in his arms and snuggles her. He peppers her with endearments like "my little baby," "my little princess," and "look at that face, you're my angel." We see quite a bit of this verbal petting coming from Monica, too, although David leads it. Where does he get this? Does he watch a lot of TV? Codina says,
Some, but David is by nature extremely emotive. He'll look at me for a moment and then say, 'I love you'. Or if he hasn't talked to you for a few days and you call, he'll say 'I miss you'. The two of them have an incredible amount of charisma, especially when they're together. They operate as a team; in fact, they refer to themselves as a team.
That's another bright side of their story. And the lessons aren't just for us. Codina says this film has been very good for the couple. They were excited to be acknowledged. They opened up to the camera and shared things they had only talked about with each other, things like wanting babies but realizing the chaos children bring would be too much for them. Their lives are much better now. They used to spend their time in programs with other handicapped people. Now they sometimes stay with my husband and me, and we go out together. Plus they hang around with my friends.
Monica's stepfather adopted her three years ago. He explains the success of the family this way: "Both of these mothers are very progressive. What I see with other kids that Monica and David used to hang out with is over-protection by the parents. They keep them wrapped up in their little cocoons. These two moms realized their kids needed to carve out a life of their own." Marie Elena explains another bright spot in this story, Monica and David, they're very gentle, and they want to please. No matter how many times you ask them to tell you what they really want, they won't assert themselves. You show her three bridesmaids dresses, and whichever you showed her last was 'the one'. It was the same thing with wedding gowns. She loved all of them, which makes her absolutely wonderful. Codina adds, "One of the ways I find Monica and David very sophisticated is their ability to tap into their own and other people's emotions. They're deeply concerned with how other people feel." And could Codina tap into her own emotions when she won the award?
I couldn't believe it, actually. Monica, David and I were standing at the front during the Awards Ceremony because we're all short and they wanted to see Robert DeNiro. When the announcer started describing the film chosen for best documentary, I didn't recognize it was ours until they actually named the film. I'm still in shock. This is going to take a while to sink in.