'Monica And David,' Building A Life On Their Terms In a new documentary, filmmaker Ali Codina follows the wedding of her cousin Monica Walters to David Martinez. Bride and groom both have Down syndrome but want to live independently, and the film is as much about their protective mothers' struggle to let them go as it is about the newlyweds.
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'Monica And David,' Building A Life On Their Terms

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'Monica And David,' Building A Life On Their Terms

'Monica And David,' Building A Life On Their Terms

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Not that long ago, the life expectancy for people with Down syndrome was 25. Today it's 60. A documentary airing tonight on HBO tells the story of two adults with Down syndrome who get married.

"Monica and David" is about their courtship and their married life together. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, the documentary is also about what it's like to be a parent of someone with an intellectual disability.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Monica's mother, Marie Elena Walters, is indomitable. When Monica was a toddler, her husband left her. Realizing Monica may never be self-sufficient, Walters made getting a high-paying job a priority so she could take care of her.

MARIE ELENA WALTERS: I firmly that that's my life's work, is Monica.

BLAIR: But she also admits that she and other parents of children with disabilities can be overprotective to a fault.

ELENA WALTERS: Because we want to protect them so much, we are typically the first ones who treat them poorly by subconsciously denying them their rights to have a normal life.

BLAIR: The documentary "Monica & David" is the work of filmmaker Ali Codina. It begins the night before Monica and David's wedding. They're a little hard to understand, but as you can hear in this phone conversation, they're crazy about each other.



DAVID MARTINEZ: Hi, my love.

WALTERS MARTINEZ: (Unintelligible). What did you eat for dinner?

WALTERS MARTINEZ: Rice, got beans and (unintelligible).

BLAIR: But Ali Codina says some people in their circle treated their wedding like it was just a cute gesture between kids.

ALI CODINA: And I saw it as something very different. To me, the wedding was something very powerful and very serious and very adult.


Unidentified Man: I, Monica.


Man: Ask you, David.


Man: To be my husband.

WALTERS MARTINEZ: To be my husband.

BLAIR: About 200 people attended Monica and David's wedding. And the guest list was an example of how other parents can also be very protective of their adult children with intellectual disabilities.

CODINA: They did have some friends whose parents didn't let them come to the wedding because they thought it will fill their sons' and daughters' heads with ideas.

BLAIR: Filmmaker Ali Codina is Monica's first cousin, and that gave her complete access. But even though Codina grew up around Monica and her mother, there was a lot she did not know, like the story of Monica's birth.


ELENA WALTERS: Monica was born 10 days shy of my 20th birthday. The pediatrician walked in, stood at the foot of my bed and said your child - and I'll quote - "is a mongoloid," turned around and walked out. And that was it. And I was like - I guess in shock. I don't think it sank in.

Ms. CODINA My Aunt Marie Elena, I didn't even realize myself at the beginning how long this would take but how much she was part of the story.

BLAIR: Marie Elena Walters and her husband are with Monica and David constantly. And they clearly love their company. Monica and David are positive and eager to please. In many ways, they look like any, conventional married couple. They do chores around the house together. Monica fusses when her husband takes too long to fold the laundry.


WALTERS MARTINEZ: He takes too long. I don't (unintelligible).

BLAIR: But the documentary also shows their limits. While Ali Codina was filming, the family moved from a house to an apartment. This completely unsettles Monica. She stands in her now empty bedroom and wonders: Where are her pajamas? Where's her bed?


WALTERS MARTINEZ: It's ridiculous. No armoire. No pajamas. How am I going to sleep, naked?

BLAIR: Monica's inability to understand the move just adds to Marie Elena's own stress about the move.


ELENA WALTERS: And it's not connecting. It's not that she doesn't want to realize it, it's just not connecting that we're definitely not here tonight.

BLAIR: Ali Codina's film "Monica & David" won Best Documentary at last year's Tribeca Film Festival. It's airing on HBO tonight. Over the past few weeks, Monica and David have been traveling with Codina, attending special screenings of the film around the country. They're riding in limos and doing interviews. Monica says it's a thrill.

WALTERS MARTINEZ: To see the people, standing ovation and clapping for us and the filming and the party after, the limo and the red carpet, it's pretty exciting.

CODINA: To me it's become clear that they really feel acknowledged and understood, and that means a lot to them.

BLAIR: Filmmaker Ali Codina.

CODINA: And it means a lot to me that that's been their reaction, or it seems to be their reaction.

BLAIR: Monica Walters Martinez and her husband David Martinez are now pursuing acting careers. Monica's mother says wistfully, when they're on the road, they barely ever call home.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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