Monica & David, a stirring, eye-opening documentary about two people with Down syndrome who fall in love, begins where you would expect it to end: with the couple's wedding ceremony in March 2005.
The lavish, festive affair is a highly emotional experience for Monica and David's parents and relatives, whose faces register a combination of joy and worry. Yes, everyone is thrilled that the couple -- born with a genetic disorder that affects roughly one in 800 babies -- has defied the odds and found romance and happiness. But once they're married, then what?
Monica & David, which premieres on HBO at 8 p.m. Thursday after almost a year of racking up awards on the film-festival circuit (including Best Documentary at Tribeca), follows its protagonists as they embark on their life journey. Their disability prevents them from being completely independent: They rely on help from Monica's mother and stepfather, Maria Elena and Bob Walters, with whom they live.
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But at what point does that need for assistance become an impediment? That question initially intrigued Alexandra "Ali'' Codina, Monica's cousin, when she noticed the nervous mood surrounding her family in the weeks before the wedding.
"There was still a lack of acceptance within the family as this being a marriage between two adults," Codina, 32, says. "They were still being seen as if they were children. The lack of acceptance was unspoken, but it was there. Not just within the family but also at large. People who heard Monica and David were getting married would always say ‘Isn't that cute?'
‘‘Being a family member, I had a specific level of understanding about this problem, and I had volunteered for many years for programs for adults with disabilities that Monica and David later attended. I felt like I had the privilege of understanding in a very different way who Monica and David were and what their love and life were about."
So Codina, then a programmer for the Miami International Film Festival, took three weeks off, obtained a digital video camera "through a friend of a friend'' and began filming the preparations for the wedding -- Monica's bridal-gown fitting, the rehearsal dinner -- and finally the ceremony. She amassed 30 hours of footage, then returned to her post at the festival, periodically dropping in on Monica and David with her camera.
Two years later, she quit her job to concentrate full time on her film. Using savings, Codina hired an editor to help her carve out a nine-minute development trailer that would show potential distributors and financiers the movie she had in mind. She applied to and was accepted by an initiative of the Tribeca Film Festival that allows unknown and first-time filmmakers to pitch their projects to industry executives.
Through the program, Codina landed a meeting with HBO executives, with whom she had already established contact. She had sent a copy of the trailer to Nancy Abraham, senior vice president of the cable network's documentary division.
"We had our first face to face at the festival, and a few months later they made a first-look offer," Codina says. "That basically gives them first dibs to the movie when it's finished. It's basically a very tiny grant, but it's something that helps a lot when you apply for larger grants from other institutions."
Abraham, who made the decision to support the movie, says that "even in the early stages of production, it was clear that Monica & David would be a totally unique film and that it would offer viewers an intimate, emotionally engaging story of a family which happens to include two adults living with Down syndrome."
The bulk of Monica & David was shot between 2007 and 2009, following the couple and Monica's parents as they move from Miami to a condo in Hollywood, cope with David's sudden diagnosis of diabetes and attempt to find paying jobs for the pair.
Aside from dealing with the obstacles faced by adults with disabilities who try to assimilate into everyday culture, Monica & David is also an ode to the heroism of simple parenting. In the film, Maria Elena tirelessly looks after her daughter and son-in-law. In one moving, candid moment, she wonders whether her protective efforts are keeping Monica from living her life.
"Honestly, I never imagined the movie would get as far as it has, so I was not bothered at all about my private home life being filmed," Maria Elena says about the intrusion of Codina's camera. "If it had been a non-family member, I do not believe we would have gone through with it, or at least we would have been reluctant to allow so much filming at home."
‘‘Filming was very stressful on my aunt, because I knew she didn't like having the camera around, and I was spending a lot of time in her house during difficult moments, like when they were moving," Codina says. "But the movie has had a very positive impact on our family. Both Monica and David's moms felt an anger for a long time that there wasn't a place in the world for their children. But seeing the way audiences react to the movie has given them a lot of confidence. And Monica and David are also gaining more confidence in terms of being more open about what they want."
Monica & David made its world premiere at the prestigious International Documentary Festival Amsterdam last year and has been shown at multiple festivals and screenings around the United States. It has earned the praise of critics and organizations such as Best Buddies International, which creates personal and professional opportunities for disabled people.
"Monica & David is one of the greatest love stories of all time," says Anthony K. Shriver, founder and chairman of Best Buddies. "I am also hopeful that it will be a wake-up call for all of us about the endless love, passion and ability that all individuals with intellectual disabilities possess."
Codina says she's most excited about the film's airing on HBO, because that will provide its widest exposure to date.
Neither Monica, 38, nor David, 32, has yet been able to find jobs.
"That was always my goal throughout the making of the film: To get it to the largest audience possible who may know very little about disabilities," Codina says. "Once the viewer connects with the love story, you can start dealing with broader issues, such as addressing the fact that we don't often acknowledge adults with disabilities as adults. We treat them as children. I also hope people who see Monica & David start to think differently about employment for the disabled. It's a pretty tough reality in terms of what's available for them."