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Award-Winning Documentary Maker Jeanie Finlay on Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth

21 June 19 interview: Ashley Carter

We might only be in June, but 2019 has been a very busy year for Jeanie Finlay. The Broadway-based filmmaker has followed up the success of her 2015 film Orion: The Man Who Would be King with not one, but two enormous, yet wildly different films. We caught up with the award-winning documentary maker to talk about both projects, starting with Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth, a film that follows Freddy McConnell, a transgender man, on his path to parenthood after making the decision to carry his child himself…

 

During the closing credits of Seahorse, it says that the initial concept for the film came from Freddy, the subject of the documentary. Did he approach you to make the film?
About three years ago, my friend Charlie Phillips – who runs the documentary department at The Guardian – approached me with an interesting story that was looking for a director. He only told me a tiny bit about the film, but asked if I would come to London to meet with Freddy. At that time, Freddy was meeting with lots of directors because he knew he wanted to get pregnant, and recognised that it was an unusual journey. He asked me to tell his story, and I said that I would do it if I made it with him.

I'm not transgender and I don't need to be to tell this story, but I needed to understand the ways in which trans stories had been told in the past that may have been hurtful. Equally, he had to give me freedom and to trust me. I can't tell you why Freddy chose me as the right person, because we're so different. I'm older than him, and I'm a cis-straight woman, but I think that, ultimately, we connected on an emotional level. Freddy gave me so much and was open in so many ways.

Assuming that a story like this hinges on whether Freddy was able to get pregnant, was there ever a worry of that not happening?
Absolutely. It was a risk for everyone involved. There were a lot of questions: have we got a film if he doesn't get pregnant? Do we make a film about the struggle to get pregnant, or is the film about how a body changes when you're pregnant? We probably filmed for a year on and off before he did conceive. Sometimes, when you’re making a film you just have to wait, trust the process and see what happens.

There is a decent amount of footage in the final film that Freddy shot himself, as well as recorded phone calls between the two of you. Was that a stylistic choice or a practical one?
It's a bit of both really. It's hard when you're making such a personal film and you can't be there 24/7. The thing I prize above all in my films is intimacy; being filmed is awkward, and can take a while to get used to it, and sometimes you don’t get used to it at all. So I came to this idea of me phoning him, which allowed him to be more vulnerable and confessional. It was an additional layer in the storytelling that I really liked – it felt more intimate than an interview, more immediate.

A lot of the films I've made recently like Orion and The Great Hip Hop Hoax are telling a story of the past. Because this was an unfurling story, I had a real desire from me to show rather than tell and to live it in the present tense.

I love making films; it makes me feel like myself and I think everyone's yearning for that in their life, aren't they? The job where you get to do the thing that makes you feel like it's touching the core of your being in some way.

Is it more challenging to present a story that's happening as you tell it?
All films are hard, but you've got to be enthused and love the challenge. I love making films; it makes me feel like myself and I think everyone's yearning for that in their life, aren't they? The job where you get to do the thing that makes you feel like it's touching the core of your being in some way. This film has been enormously challenging, but when I remember every other film, they're all hard. If it wasn't hard, you wouldn't do it.

How did your own relationship with gender identity change during this?
I think I went into the project thinking I was pretty liberal but there was a lot in the journey that was unfamiliar to me. I'm an open person, so I'm always interested to hear about other people's lives. The most simple and fundamental thing that became really clear to me as I was making the film was that Freddy is transgender; Freddy’s a man, he has a male passport, if he committed a crime he’d go to a male prison. And when he got pregnant, his gender identity did not change. This is an experience he had as a man, and it's a different experience to a woman being pregnant.

Most of the films that I've seen about trans stories are about the transition. I think it's too delicious for people as a subject matter. I wanted to get Freddy's transition out of the way in the first two minutes and then say: “What does life look like? Here's the rest of the story.” The film is quite domestic; it shows someone having a normal life, arguing with their parents and walking their dog in amongst more extraordinary things.

Do you think it’s a human instinct to try and label things so people can understand it rather than try to get their heads around a more complex issue?
Absolutely. Also, public understanding of what it means to be trans is still really nascent so people make mistakes, or misunderstand, and I think people always want to be right. I read this great article the other day, which said the internet is an outrage machine based on the concept of “Why wasn't I asked?” Constantly, it's people complaining, saying “Well, this is my opinion,” and I think things would be better if we were all a bit more open to “Well how is that for you?” or “What does that feel like?”

Do you want this film to have a wider influence than a piece of entertainment? Do you think it could have a societal impact on helping people understand gender identity?
I'd really like it to. I want people to be moved by Freddy's humanity. Freddy is a vulnerable, obstinate, passionate, funny and interesting person. In all of my films I want to have a moment with people and move an audience. I don't really make films for social change, but I also know that films have an impact. If people see this and gain a bit more understanding of what it means to be trans or what it means to be a different sort of parent, that would be really great. Or just to get their head around the idea that a man had a baby and it didn't stop him being a man. I think that's a really simple but sort-of challenging idea.

It is a very striking, visceral moment at the end of the film where we actually see Freddy giving birth. Was it always your intention to involve that?
Yes, but right up until the last minute I didn't know whether we'd still get it. It was a risk. I was there about two weeks before the baby was born because I was on standby. Deal, where Freddy lives, can be a five-hour drive from Nottingham, and I was terrified of missing it. It was written into Freddy's birth plan that the filming would be there, but also that Freddy had the right at any point to tell us to leave if it was intrusive. I didn't want to spoil the birth because it's something you can't repeat. They phoned when they were on their way to the hospital so we were driving like crazy to get there. While he was having a contraction I had to sneak across the room, angle the camera, focus it, switch it on, pray the battery would last for the whole birth and then hide behind my other camera. You can't say “Excuse me midwives, can you get out of the way because you're spoiling my shot.”

Are you worried about drawing negative attention to Freddy when the film comes out?
Oh, of course. People can be awful. We're worried, but not to the extent that we wouldn't make the film. Freddy wants to go out and change the world and I imagine that he wants to spark debate.

Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth will have its European premiere at Sheffield Doc Fest, and will be released theatrically later this year

Seahorse Film website

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