INDIANAPOLIS, Dec. 13, 2015 – Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Nick Spark wanted to film Jessica Cox’s wedding; his goal was to create a short documentary about her. When he found she was going to invite three young girls, all born, as Jessica was, without arms or partial limbs, to her wedding, he thought this story might be inspirational even as he found inspired by Jessica’s story.
“I had no intention to make a feature film,” he said, reflecting on his first meeting with Jessica, four months before her nuptials. “But I thought she was remarkable. She didn’t want to talk about all that ‘wedding stuff.’ She had invited those young girls – Ira, Teresa, and Anna – as a sort of role model and mentor. ‘I’m going to film your wedding,’ I promised. I had no idea…”
The result was not a short, but a feature documentary titled “Right Footed,” and it’s been winning awards at film festivals all year.
“I thought it would be inspirational to these girls and to all the kids who have abnormalities,” he said. “Not many are as profound as Jessica’s, but she doesn’t let that slow her down. In fact, she looks on the challenges to make her better and better.” He began with a short in mind, but “I found the story so rich that I made a feature film.”
The result was an extraordinary film shot on three continents over the course of two years that beautifully tells a much bigger story.
Jessica, born without arms, was fitted with prosthetics when she was three. “I hated those,” she said, and left them at home for good on the first day of eighth grade. She writes in cursive with good penmanship, uses her smartphone like anyone else, and does pretty much everything, though not without needing to innovate here and there.
“One of the toughest things,” she said, “was getting my pants on.” A hook, a modified windshield repair tool mounted to the wall, makes it do-able. “I keep a few of these at the house,” she said, in a post-screening interview, “and I send them to kids who are having the same kind of problem. If you’re creative enough, and you can be persistent, you can do anything.”
Jessica’s parents learned the news the day she was born. Inez, her Philippine-born mom, said, “What did I do wrong?” and her father, Bill, assured her, “God must have thought you were very strong. I guess [working with Jessica’s disability] is what we ought to be doing.”
Childhood was difficult, and not just for Jessica. Her brother, Jason, said, “My mom poured her soul into raising Jessica. That had a cost.” Young Jason resented the extra attention Jessica required. “As much as she [Mom] tried to take care of me, I struck out against it.”
Jessica assimilated the lessons of life.
“My parents taught me to embrace who I am; they taught me to embrace my disability, to think of what’s important: that’s what you want to do.”
Jessica could have retreated into obscurity. Instead, she learned and innovated her way through cursive writing, earning a black belt in Tae Kwon-Do (at age 14!), driving a car and, in 2010, earning a pilot’s license, thus becoming the world’s first (and to date, only) licensed armless pilot.
“‘I can’t’ is out of my vocabulary,” said Jessica, as she determined to learn to fly. “It was that anger that gave me the drive I needed, to be confident instead of trying to hide who I am.” She saw flying “as the ultimate form of independence,” and set about finding a suitable airplane and a willing instructor. “The hardest part wasn’t even the flying,” she said. “It was figuring out how to get into the four-point harness!” Half an hour alone in the airplane, and she had a method that worked.
But even her first solo flight in May 2008 didn’t go smoothly; the radio conked out, and she also found herself coming in to land, a bit too fast. She did what a seasoned pilot would do: she pushed the throttle in, went around another circuit and landed perfectly.
My solo flight was the most empowering thing I’ve ever done, for sure. I prayed a lot to be able to do that; it was like a miracle, right before my eyes.
After a couple more years of practice, Jessica earned her pilot’s license. One of her first passengers was her mom, who got a ride in the Ercoupe on her 59th birthday.
Compared to flying an airplane, driving is easy. But not always, like when Jessica goes to rent a car. “It’s really great to kinda mess with people’s expectations,” she says, as she hands her driver’s license and credit card to the rental agent… with her foot. (Jessica does not need any special equipment to be accommodated to drive most cars.)
Jessica and her fiancé (and Tae Kwon-Do instructor) Patrick wanted their wedding dance to be special, and it was. Months of practice and some innovative choreography culminated in a flowing, romantic ballet, captured beautifully by Spark’s camera. The girls in attendance were thrilled. Her mom had contracted cancer, and Jessica was her primary caretaker. She noted,
“I’ll be missing her, but everyone is entitled to fall in love.”
Jessica and Patrick were married on May 12, 2012. Jessica tossed the bouquet, and something remarkable happened. (Watch “Right Footed” and cry with joy along with the audience.)
They divide tasks at home. Patrick is a good cook, and Jessica appreciates that. “I do the dishes,” she says.
But Spark didn’t stop with the wedding. Jessica is in demand worldwide as a speaker, and he followed her to her mother’s home town in the Philippines after a typhoon had nearly leveled the area, to Ethiopia, and finally to Washington, D.C., where Jessica works to encourage our legislators and State Department to urge other countries to adopt laws like our own Americans with Disabilities Act. Still, she says, “It’s not what they say – it’s what you do!”
Spark gently documented Jessica’s most recent trip, to her ancestral home, as she was sponsored by (NGO) Handicap International, as she was often accompanied by family in the Philippines. Cox is a celebrity there, and she raised awareness of the devastation and the needs of the region in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest storms in world history.
The overriding feeling she experienced – and exuded – was warmth and love, captured by Spark’s lens in some still-difficult conditions. He remarkably turned the devastation into a background for her message of hope.
On an earlier trip, captured in detail by Nick Spark, Jessica was a goodwill ambassador for Handicap International in Ethiopia, where children with disabilities are often prevented from attending school. The scenes were both poignant and heartbreaking. Jessica was visibly touched as one of the girls summoned up the courage to ask, on camera, if Jessica could help her.
“This trip has taught me that my life can bring great purpose,” she reflects, leaving many, though not all, her African audience with a new sense of dignity.
Filmmaker Spark says, thinking back to his original intent of making a short documentary of the wedding,
I started out to make a film about those three girls. I think I would have stopped at some point, but working with Jessica, it’s impossible to say, “I quit.” I learned that our perceptions of what we can and cannot do are often false.
Jessica realizes that the very thing that makes her different is her strength and purpose. “Today, given the choice, I wouldn’t want the arms, because of the things this has let me do.” That’s a lot, and she is driven by her gift. “My greatest fear is, what if I can’t make a difference?”
At the end of the film one appreciates Patrick and Jessica’s special, loving relationship, how they complement each other, and how he helps make her whole.
Nick Spark may not have known he was going to get in so deep, but he certainly hit the mark with “Right Footed,” one of the highlights of the Heartland Film Festival in 2015, whose theme, coincidentally, was “Movies that Stay With You.” It did.
“Right Footed” has been screened in over 25 festivals in the USA and abroad, and has won “Best Documentary” honors at the Mirabile Dictu Film Festival in Rome, the International Film Festival Manhattan in New York, the Offshoot Film Festival and the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival. It won “Best Social Action Film 2015” at the acclaimed Hollywood Film Festival.
“Right Footed” has also won audience awards at the Loft Film Festival, the L.A. Awareness Film Festival, the Kansas International Film Festival, and the Newport Documentary Film Festival.
A film like this doesn’t just happen. Spark noted that the film was entirely paid for by donations from individuals, and, he says, “We still have needs.” Believe me, you’ll want to help: tax deductible donations can be made via a link on RightFootedMovie.com through their fiscal sponsor, the International Documentary Association.
More: The film may go into online distribution in 2016, but right now, it’s making the rounds of film festivals, where it has just won its ninth award, best documentary, at the Philadelphia Asian-American Film Festival.