Filmmaker Paolo Monico

Paolo Monico is an award-winning filmmaker who has directed more than 150 commercials for companies like Volkswagen, Honda, and Coca-Cola, as well as more than two dozen music videos. Earlier in his career, he worked as an animator, cartoonist, storyboard artist, and a number of other jobs in the film and television industry. His commercial work has received critical acclaim, and he has been featured in industry journals such as Shots Magazine.

However, it is Paolo’s most recent achievement, a short film titled The Mother, that has afforded him the greatest opportunity for expression so far. The film tells the story of a woman who has been hardened by the death of her husband, and it is based on the Monico family’s experience with the rare, deadly form of cancer known as mesothelioma.

Paolo’s father, Sandro Monico, died in 2002 from mesothelioma. An accountant at a large corporation, Sandro never worked with asbestos directly, and it’s unclear how he may have been exposed to the substance.

According to the film’s website, The Mother provided Paolo with a way to honor the life and memory of his father, while also raising awareness about asbestos, mesothelioma, and the ways that perception plays into our understanding of the issues surrounding these topics.

Recently, the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance had an opportunity to speak with Paolo Monico about his film, his father, and his role as an auteur and advocate for mesothelioma.

Art, Asbestos, and Awareness

Written, directed, and financed by Paolo himself, The Mother was screened at more than 30 film festivals. The goal is to raise awareness about the dangers of asbestos in front of the large crowds that film festivals can draw each year.

With regard to the role that art has in raising awareness about issues such as mesothelioma, Paolo said, “I think that, in general, art has a role in raising awareness about anything that is sort of overlooked or taken for granted by people.”

“I think artists should look around, listen to their inner voices and eventually speak out about anything that bothers them,” Paolo continued. That was his goal with The Mother – to speak out and get others to think about this dangerous substance that still exists all around us.

As for his own journey to becoming an advocate for mesothelioma, Paolo said that it took a revelation for him to get involved. “That happened when I realized that asbestos hadn’t been banned in the USA,” he recalled. “I was shocked.”

“Being born and raised in Europe, where asbestos had been banned many years ago, the news came as total nonsense to me,” Paolo explained. The European Union banned asbestos more than a decade ago; however, some individual European countries banned it long before that. Italy, where Paolo was born, banned the dangerous substance in 1992.

“I decided I had to do something by using the skills and gifts that I was given to the best of my ability. That’s how my short film The Mother was born.”

Paolo has continued to show the film at dozens of festivals in the U.S. and other countries, including the United Kingdom and Brazil. So far, The Mother has won at least 9 awards, including Best Drama at NY Shorts Fest, Best Narrative Short at the California International Shorts Festival, Best Short Film USA at the Big River Film Festival, a Gold Remi at the WorldFest in Houston, and the prestigious Shoestring Trophy at the Rochester International Film Festival. The film is currently scheduled for screenings at five more festivals this summer, including events in Hollywood, Australia, Hawaii, and Colorado.

All the attention and accolades have inspired Paolo to do even more. “I am developing a feature script with the same content, theme, and visual of my short,” he informed the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. “I want to reach the widest possible audience and raise awareness about this nonsense.”

Looking to the Past to Improve the Future

Sandro Monico’s struggle with mesothelioma is not the only way that Paolo’s father influenced and inspired The Mother. The support Paolo’s father gave him started long before any diagnosis took place.

“My father had a huge impact on my growth as a filmmaker,” Paolo recalled. “He was an accountant with a High School degree and a 9 to 5 job. But, more than anything, he loved movies.”

That love of movies translated into support for Paolo and his chosen profession. “He showed me the beauty of filmmaking since I was a little kid, and more than any other person, he encouraged me to pursue my career,” Paolo stated. “He was my biggest fan.”

Even the title of the film comes from the nickname Paolo’s father used to refer to the large corporation for which he worked: “The Mother.”

The story of The Mother draws significantly from Paolo’s own feelings of anger, frustration, loss, and pain related to his father’s death. The film’s protagonist is a widow named Grace Russo whose husband dies of mesothelioma, an experience that has left her hardened and cynical. In the film, Grace questions how her office-working husband could have come into contact with asbestos and who was to blame for the exposure – questions which Paolo has asked himself with respect to his own father’s diagnosis and death.

“When my father got sick I was 30, and already a father myself,” Paolo described. “What happened didn’t make any sense to me and my family: Dad was an accountant, working in a state-of-the-art office building made of glass and steel, not a miner or a sailor.”

Actress Mary Testa
Actress Mary Testa, recently won Best Female Lead for her role in "The Mother” at the Melbourne Indie Film Festival

“Unfortunately, nothing could link the disease to that office without a shadow of a doubt, and therefore I was left with no answers,” Paolo continued. “Now I think that that lack of resolution shaped my way of looking at things, and it certainly had an effect on my filmmaker’s stance. It made me more and more inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions and, consequently, made me aware I need to gauge human behavior through all possible benchmarks, patterns and dimensions.”

Ironically, while the experience shaped Paolo’s own work, he says that the cancer did not change who his father was at a fundamental level. “I don’t think that mesothelioma changed his stance about what’s important in life,” Paolo said. “I think he was just devastated at the idea he had to go that early. He was just 60.”

At each venue where the film is screened, Paolo takes the opportunity to tell people about the continued importation and use of asbestos in the United States, along with all of the asbestos that still exists in older homes and other buildings. He hopes these talks, along with the points he raises in The Mother, will spark a national conversation around banning asbestos once and for all.

Advice To and From

Paolo still recalls a piece of advice that his father gave him: “He always told me, ‘Never do things because of the money. Do things for the pleasure they give you. Then money will come.’”

Throughout his career, Paolo has tried to adhere to that advice. While the message and story of The Mother may be difficult, it nonetheless shows the passion that Paolo has put into the project. Having put his own money, time, and ability into the project, Paolo is not looking for financial success, but rather to inspire and encourage others to learn more about mesothelioma, asbestos, and the barriers to imposing a ban on the deadly material.

His advice for those who do want to speak out is to understand that it won’t be an easy thing to accomplish. “Be aware that it’s gonna be tough,” Paolo said. “Corporations, lawyers, governments, pundits, interests, lobbies and ‘experts’ of all kinds are working non-stop to dismantle our credibility.”

“But be also aware that you won’t be alone,” he added as an encouragement to those who do choose to stand up. “We are one.”

A trailer for The Mother is available here.