When Daniel Monks was 11, his PE teacher noticed that he favoured his left side. As a left-handed boy, he didn’t think much of it, but his mother, casting director Annie Murtagh-Monks, insisted they get him checked out. A couple of specialists gave him the all clear but she insisted on an MRI, and that’s when his life changed.
Discovering a large tumour on Monks’ spinal cord, complications from the initial biopsy resulted in him becoming quadriplegic for six months, starting Year 7 in a wheelchair.
“I went from being quite a popular, very outgoing 11-year-old who was very flamboyant and vivacious, to suddenly going back to school in a wheelchair with a carer,” Monks says. “At the same time, I was also starting to realise that I liked boys and I went from having no cares in the world to suddenly feeling like I was less than everyone else.”
It didn’t help that the cute guy Monks had his eye on began dating a pretty blonde girl that year. “I remember thinking, ‘what if I looked like her, he’d be looking at me like that',” Monks recalls. “I had such a disconnect from my body, it didn’t feel like my own anymore. I didn’t recognise it.”
Six months of intensive rehab saw Monks regain the use of his left side, making him hemiplegic, and celebrated neurosurgeon Charlie Teo was able to successfully remove the benign tumour. Still, the journey to fully embrace his new self took a lot longer for Monks, who is now 28.
This identity crisis forms the basis of Pulse, a startlingly assured feature debut which screened as he centrepiece of this year's Melbourne Queer Film Festival. It's now a highlight of the new Screenability stream at the Sydney Film Festival, featuring the work of filmmakers with disability. It’s sure to have audiences debating in the festival lounge afterwards.
Written by and starring Monks, Pulse is directed by regular collaborator and fellow queer filmmaker Stevie Cruz-Martin, and is their first full-length feature. A labour of love for the pair and its spunky Australian cast, including Sian Ewers - who has appeared in several of Monks’ self-directed shorts - as well as Home & Away’s Scott Lee, Monks plays Olly, a teenage lad whose travails bare an uncanny resemblance to himself. The only difference being, in a smart use of speculative fiction, a closeted Olly is able to have his consciousness transplanted into an able-bodied female (Jamiee Peasley). He also harbours a secret crush on best friend Luke (Lee) who’s dating another bestie Nat (Ewers).
As well as exploring complex approaches to gender and sexual identity, Pulse is also a confronting look at disability that’s nonetheless told with a great deal of humour and queer eroticism. Cruz-Martin intercuts scenes of Peasley as ‘Olivia’ with Monks as he explores his new found freedom, including a flirtation with homophobic school bully Brandon (David Richardson).
While the implications of this body swap are sure to challenge audiences, for Monks’ Pulse was all about telling his own truth—Back in high school, he wished for an escape exactly like this.
“Stevie would always say through the process, which I think is so true, it’s really hard to trust that your truth is interesting, because you know it so well,” Monks says. “You kind of want to dress it up, but at the end of the day, there is nothing more interesting than the truth.”
While queer representation has enjoyed an upward curve, it’s still frustratingly rare to see a realistic representation of disability onscreen, Monks argues, particularly as played by someone who is actually disabled. Screen Australia’s recent study of live action television drama between 2011-15, Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in TV Drama, found that only four per cent of characters were disabled, compared to 18 per cent of the population. Queer characters fared slightly better, at five per cent compared to 11.
“All I wanted to do when I was a kid was act, and I gave it up when I became disabled because I thought it wouldn’t be a feasible career path, because I didn’t see disabled actors on screen or on stage who had sustainable careers,” Monks says. “That’s what brought me into filmmaking, which I’m so grateful for, but doing Pulse is really what brought me back into acting. I’m basically able to survive now as an actor, which is incredible. I’m very poor but I can survive at least.”
While he thinks 12-year-old Monks, who scoured YouTube for queer shorts on his laptop late at night then clearing his history in case his parents found out, would be shocked by Pulse’s sex scenes, he knows it would have given him hope, and his burgeoning theatre, film and dance career is proof that sometimes the impossible is anything but.
“Obviously we want the largest audience ever... but the thing that really made me go through the struggles of making this film - which has taken eight years - was knowing the impact it would have had on me back then," he says. "I mean, I’m literally living the dream that I had before I got disabled, so that’s the most special thing in the world. I’m proud to be a part of the disabled community and I’ve shown Pulse to a lot of disabled friends, especially younger ones, and the fact that it resonates is the greatest reward.”
Pulse screens at the Sydney Film Festival on Wednesday, June 14 and Friday, June 16. Book tickets here.