Disability Film Challenge leads to Alexandria Cree's inspiring short doc about daughter

'Áine' screens for free at the South Drive-In on Thursday as part of the Ohio Shorts festival and streams on the Wexner Center's site starting Saturday

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"Áine," a short film by Alexandria Cree and Kristen Hilkert

On a recent day at the park, Alexandria Cree’s 6-year-old daughter, Áine, approached a group of kids to play. In response, the kids ran away. 

Áine has Down syndrome, and the low muscle tone in her mouth, throat and jaw area has led to delayed speech. Her receptive language, though, is excellent. She understands what others are saying, even if they can’t always understand her. But the kids at the park didn’t know how to react, and it made Cree wish that others knew more about Áine — who she is, what she’s been through, what she loves, what she wants. Maybe if people heard that story, and if parents talked about it with their kids, then beautiful, vivacious children like Áine could have healthier interactions on the playground and in the aisles of grocery stores. Maybe she wouldn’t be treated as “other.” 

That’s part of the hope behind Cree’s short film, “Áine,” which screens for free at the South Drive-In on Thursday, April 15, at 8:40 p.m. as part of the 25th anniversary of the Wexner Center’s annual Ohio Shorts festival. Beginning Saturday, April 17, “Áine” and other short films (including Donte Woods-Spikes' “As a Matter of Black”) will also be available to stream for free via wexarts.org.  

In 2014, at age 37, Cree became pregnant, and during an early ultrasound, she and her husband, Will, learned that the baby had a chromosomal anomaly, Trisomy 21, commonly known as Down syndrome. Cree said doctors and nurses immediately began using the word “termination.” “In my mind, that set the course for the story. … How do we value life? What do we place value on?” said Cree, who characterized her pregnancy as full of anxiety and rife with negative healthcare interactions that took much of the joy out of those nine months. 

Once Áine arrived (after two pushes), many of those anxieties melted away. She seemed... fine. There were challenges, of course, but Áine was doing great. Then, in 2016, she got cancer.  

Soon after the diagnosis, Cree began filming everything to help keep track of all the information coming her way. Video enabled her to document and process Áine’s battle with leukemia. Initially, Cree, an actor who spent 15 years in Los Angeles before moving back to Columbus, thought about telling her story in the form of a one-woman show. But when COVID hit, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to assemble her footage into a short film for the 2020 “Home Edition” of the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge.  

A still from “Áine”

Cree teamed up with co-director and friend Kristen Hilkert as the pair attempted to turn years of footage into a five-minute film. The task seemed insurmountable at first, but Hilkert has known Cree for 15 years. She had firsthand knowledge of Cree’s pregnancy and Áine’s struggle with cancer. Cree gave Hilkert access to her entire iCloud library as they looked for ways to concisely tell the story of Áine’s journey. The two would spend late nights on Zoom editing footage. Cree had already written some of her thoughts down as the first draft of a one-woman show, and she began sifting through the words, pulling out the essential pieces for narration. To record herself, she often sat in her Toyota Prius, the only quiet place around.   

“Áine” has resonated with audiences. The short documentary, which Cree described as “a love letter to my daughter,” has now been featured in 13 film festivals. “Áine” is inspiring without being saccharine, thanks in part to Cree’s sense of humor and warts-and-all approach. She hugs her daughter, looking exhausted, while Áine sits on the potty, struggling to poop. She describes the joy in seeing Áine lift her head as an infant, but she doesn’t hesitate to mention that her baby also peed on her.

It’s a story that involves disability, but it’s not about what Áine can’t do. As Cree says in the film, “I want her to know a world where no one can limit her.”