Note: This interview originally ran as part of our TFF 2010 coverage.


Catch Monica & David on HBO: Thursday, October 14, 8 pm.
(Available to subscribers via HBO-on-demand through 11/14.)


Faces of the Festival: Alexandra Codina

Monica & David
was the first TFF 2010 film I watched on DVD back in January, and I loved it instantly. I’ve been wanting to talk to director Alexandra Codina since then, and we finally scheduled a date to talk today. As luck would have it, Monica & David won a big prize last night at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival Awards—the coveted Best Documentary Feature—so it was especially sweet to talk to the award-winning filmmaker today. (Check out all the award winners here.) So how are you feeling? Still a little high from last night?
Alexandra Codina: I’m beyond a little high! [Subjects of the film] Monica and David are better about winning an award than I am. It’s a little overwhelming. Funny thing is they always thought we were going to win, but I kept telling them that’s not why we were here, and I had kind of convinced them we were not getting any prizes. And then we won! So they will never believe anything I tell them ever again. [laughs]
And I told my aunt [Monica’s mother] and her husband to go to dinner because we weren’t going to win. They wanted to kill me! Tell us a little about Monica & David.


AC: Monica & David is mostly a love story. It’s about the romance between my cousin Monica and her husband David, who is the love of her life. [The two happen to have Down Syndrome.] The film is a very intimate way of getting to know two people and their family and their every day drama, and of coming to understand that they really want what we all want—to be loved, to be accepted, and to have opportunities in life. What inspired you to tell this story?
AC: The idea for the film really just came about as Monica and David’s wedding approached. At first I had taken for granted that everyone felt the same way I did about it—that it was a beautiful thing and a major adult commitment. Closer to the wedding, I realized that not everyone felt that way—people were looking at Monica and David as more childlike, so that it was not really an adult commitment [they were making]. I wanted people to see that it was a marriage like any other marriage. Of course, there is a difference, but not as much of one as everyone thinks there is.
While this is a film that began three weeks before their wedding, it really began many, many years ago. I not only grew up with Monica [Ali is six years younger than her cousin], but at 14 I also started volunteering on the weekends at the social programs Monica attended, and that David started attending as well. From that point, I just started connecting with Monica in a personal and direct way, not just as family, but with a personal bond—I could see into their inner social world and I got to know her peers. The more I understood them, their circle of friends, and their social setting, the more I appreciated them.



When I first started volunteering, I was young, and I thought I was doing a good thing, and that I would be this cool younger cousin they wanted to hang out with. But I soon learned I had to go through the process of becoming one of the group—it was the same social interaction etiquette as it would be with anyone trying to join a new group of friends.
There was one woman who had more trouble communicating—she spoke, but it was difficult for her. At one party, she came up to me and was trying to ask me for something. I couldn’t understand her—she asked me like 4 times, and I kept pointing to the wrong thing. She just shook her head at me like, “You poor dumb thing.” I realized then that I was the one who needed to think differently—there were lots of little lessons like that that kept turning the tables, and making me see where I had misunderstood them. I think that was the most important thing I had to know in approaching the making of this film.

Monica & David / courtesy Getty Images What do you hope audiences take away from Monica & David’s story?


AC: I want people to fall in love with their story, and to see them as just two people, and see the humanizing aspect of the story. Beyond that, I want people to start to think differently about what other adults with any disability might need, want, and be capable of in this world. Did you ever wrestle with the issue of what to film and what not to film?


AC: Quite a bit. Not as much while filming, but the editing room is the moment of truth [in deciding what to show]. I had two editors and a story consultant, but with the subjects being not only family, but two family members with an intellectual disability, it was a challenge to figure out: When Monica and David were opening up to me, what was meant for the camera and what was not?


One of the issues I was more worried about was sexuality—I knew it was an important topic to include, but I didn’t want to reveal too much about their sex life, because that is their private business. Some things they shared with me I didn’t include, because I knew they were sharing it with me [not with a filmmaker].
They are very natural in front of the camera, but they were very aware that we were filming. They were conscious of it, and let me know when they didn’t want me to cover something; they knew what that line was, and would ask the cameraman to leave the room. I would listen for their cues, but sometimes it was obvious. Like on their wedding night, they shut the door in our faces—it was like, “Show’s over, guys!” They are more conscious than people realize, and they are not naïve. What's was the biggest challenge in making the film?


AC: The biggest challenge for a while was, “Okay, how the heck are we going to create an arc with this story when we start with the climactic moment?” The fact that the wedding came first felt like a disaster for a long time, just due to the storytelling challenge. What’s the biggest thing you learned while making Monica & David?


AC: I learned things on two sides—personally and as a filmmaker. I didn’t study film, and this is my first film, so I can’t tell you how much I learned—and still have to learn—on the filmmaking side. Mostly I’d say I learned to be specific about what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to say in a film. Also—to never think I have Monica and David figured out. Every time I think I know how they are going to react, the continuously surprise me. What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers etc.?


AC: There’s no better experience than the making of a film. You can do all the studying in the world, but I think you just need to do it to really learn. It’s very important to understand that there’s no way to make a good film completely on your own—you need the support of advisors and collaborators and friends. I also watched a lot of films—that helped too! If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
AC: For a long time, my favorite film was In the Mood for Love, by Wong Kar Wai, but I haven’t seen a lot of his other films, and I know this one is very different. What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?


AC: My personal guilty pleasure is True Blood, but Big Love is what I’ve been recommending to everyone lately. It’s fascinating—I like the show because of the way the story is told (not so much just because of the subject), the way the drama is carved out. How has the audience reaction been at the screenings?


AC: It’s been incredibly powerful—the best part of a film festival, and what you don’t get if you go straight to TV, for example. Some of the audiences have made a combination of very personal connections because they either have an intellectual disability themselves or a family member with one. And some people in the audience have no previous experience, and they seem to be grateful to be allowed the intimate experience of getting to meet Monica and David—I wanted to reach out to those audiences.


Alexandra Codina, Monica, David / courtesy Getty Images How are Monica & David handling things?
AC: I’ve never seen two people who enjoy stardom more than Monica and David. Their week has been fantastic. They handle the audiences very well—they are good at public speaking and engaging with new faces. They are great ambassadors because they are very comfortable with it all. And they enjoy it! What makes Monica & David a Tribeca must-see?
AC: Monica & David is a love story about the kind of love we all dream of having.

Catch Monica & David on HBO: Thursday, October 14, 8 pm. (Available via HBO-on-demand through 11/14.)


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