For Freddy McConnell, a trans man from a seaside town in England, the decision to become pregnant was a passionate wish with several major roadblocks. British documentarian Jeanie Finlay follows his journey in her new film Seahorse. In a world that is often hostile to trans people, particularly toward the idea of an openly pregnant man, Freddy contends with his highs and lows with the support of his irrepressible mother Esme. Gently filmed with an eye for the quotidian details of an otherwise unusual situation, Seahorse is compassionate and bracing in equal turns. Hyperallergic had a chat with Finlay ahead of the film’s UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest.
Hyperallergic: How did you meet Freddy and learn about his decision to try for pregnancy?
Jeanie Finlay: Usually I go out to find my stories, track people down, and do the investigating. Here I was approached by someone at the Guardian, a colleague who said he had a story I might be a good fit for. Freddy met with, I’m not sure how many, between 6-10 potential directors to tell his story. And he said there was something in how we interacted that just clicked for him.
[Freddy’s] a journalist who also works for the Guardian, making video. But he knew if he told his own story, he’d stop filming when it got hard. He wanted someone who did it for a living. He also wanted an outside eye on the story. Because I was interested in the journey, not just his transness. We deal with transition in the first two minutes. We don’t linger there. I think a lot of films in this arena have lingered on transition, like it’s the only event in town. Whereas I felt, “OK, what does it look like once Freddy has transitioned? What does a life look like?”
H: There is so much focus on transition. Other stuff gets lost.
JF: I just had loads of questions, because it was an opportunity for me to reflect on what being pregnant was like for me, the physical sensation, how it throws your identity. You feel less assured and more assured. Once our daughter was born, I felt like I was outlined in gold pen. I’d become a more distilled version of myself. It was really interesting. I’d got my first film commissioned by the BBC when I was six months pregnant. So it was like a rebirth for two different reasons for me.
H: Logistically, what was it like to film a live birth?
JF: Oh my god, it was terrifying. It’s worth saying that the whole film was a risk. We never knew if he could or would get pregnant. Or whether the pregnancy would be okay. Even whether I’d physically be there when he went into labor. I camped out in Deal [Freddy’s hometown] for two weeks, waiting for the baby to be born. We got the heads up from Esme that he was in labor. We were sort of praying he’d have a straightforward birth, because if his labor had gone the way mine did, there was no way they would have allowed it to be filmed. We got to the hospital, managed to get there without crashing.
I had a cameraman with me, but Freddy only wanted me in the room, so we got the cameras pointing in the right direction. I was standing in the corner on a paparazzi lens, and we had a camera over the pool. I had to creep across the room while he was having a contraction to turn it on. The agreement we had was that if he felt the camera was impinging, or if he ever felt uncomfortable, I could be asked to leave. So I had to try to position, focus, and switch on the camera, and pray the battery would last. Then I was in the corner on the long lens, filming this incredibly intimate, powerful scene. Watching the film play at fests with an audience has been incredible, with that scene particularly.
H: What are the most common misapprehensions you’ve heard from people about this movie?
JF: Some people are just like, “Oh how does that work?” Or there’s a very immediate thing of people wanting to discuss genitalia. I’ve never known anything like it in my life. I don’t know what’s in anyone else’s pants. It seems weird that transgender issues are so quickly specialized. One response I’ve heard is that if you’re gonna get pregnant, you’re opening that invitation. But are you? Really? I think it’s to do with the fact that transgender people are a tiny percentage of the population. The likelihood is a lot of people haven’t met someone who’s trans. So it was important for me to focus on some of the more domestic or smaller aspects of [Freddy’s] life, so you get to hang out with him. For good and for bad.
H: There’s a very gentle vibe to this film, capturing the normality of life within this irregular situation.
JF: Yeah. Tre’vell Anderson, who covered it for Out, called it “(extra)ordinary,” and I think that’s exactly what we were going for. It was “What does this life feel like?” But also creating these more poetic spaces. I was training for a half marathon while I was making the film, which is a great metaphor for filmmaking. Even when it’s hard, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I would run along the coastline before filming with Freddy and think about the things I’d seen and heard, and the atmosphere. It’s my job to be an emotional barometer. But how can I reflect it visually in a way that makes sense to the audience? A lot of the visuals of nature and of time passing were what I allowed my mind to drift to while I was running.
H: A scene that was interesting to me was when Freddy’s mother and her friends all come over to talk, and they give him advice about pregnancy and childbirth based on their own experiences. And he’s very alienated and irritable. Of course his experience is very different from theirs, but they also clearly mean well and are trying to relate to him. What was your take on it unfolding?
JF: I feel like this is a scene about the best of intentions. This is a group of friends and family members who love Freddy, but I guess it’s the thing of any prospective parent. When you’re pregnant, it’s like everyone has taken a truth serum. You get invited behind the curtain. “You think you know? Now let me tell you.” I had similar experiences. I got the horror stories of people’s births, or the clumsy attempts of people to give a one-size-fits-all approach to pregnancy. But when there’s a trans man, there’s an additional layer to that discomfort. That experience is never going to reflect yours. Freddy is trans, and this universal approach is so uncomfortable. It’s a potent breeding ground for emotional insecurity.
H: I wanted to talk about you a little bit about your initiative to be sure to have as many women crew members as possible. How do you get the ball rolling on something like that?
JF: I hire the best people for the jobs. I make sure that women are in contention for that. I’ve worked with a range of people. I worked with Tara Creme [for music] — only 4% of composers on films are women. She was someone I always wanted to work with, since I studied music and art at university. Alice Powell is the best editor I’ve ever worked with. We cut Game of Thrones: The Last Watch and Seahorse back to back. She completely gets what I want to do. And I’ve worked with Pip Norton, a sound recorder/mixer, time and time again because she’s amazing. We also brought on a younger woman as an assistant camera on this film, that was important to me. The camera is where you find a lot of confident men and not a lot of women. I also had a female DP on the Game of Thrones doc, as well as two incredible men. So it depends on the fit.
Seahorse is currently playing various film festivals.