In order to make progress in his life, Freddy McConnell finds he has to move backwards for a time in “Seahorse.” Giving up testosterone for folic acid in order to facilitate birth, the trans man isn’t concerned about the physical effects of pregnancy after already having undergone one transformation, but in pursuing a baby, he’s concerned about the feelings it will stir up, finding himself returning emotionally to a past life while thrusting himself into brave new territory.
“Everyone should experience birth, especially men,” Freddy’s mother Esme insists, and in letting in the sensitive camera of Jeanie Finlay (“Sound It Out,” “Orion: The Man Who Would Be King”), McConnell graciously provides a moving portrait of the complexities of having a baby, made more complicated emotionally by his gender identity.
Admitting that “I’m more able to talk about how I feel and more want to talk about how I feel” after giving up testosterone, Freddy, a 30-something living in the English coastal town of Deal, has a relatively quiet life, referring to sitting with his feet perched up on the couch alongside his partner C.J. with both of their laptops open as “our version of sex.” You wouldn’t think pregnancy would change that much as Freddy visits health clinics for fertility testing and general consultation, but not only does he feel himself changing from within, but it recalibrates all the relationships he has, from C.J. whose casual and comfortable partnership suddenly has to be defined, to his mother Esme, who couldn’t be more supportive, and his father, with whom he communicates via e-mail out of caution to avoid further strain.
Finlay, who has long had the ability to find the humanity in extraordinary subjects and bring out what’s remarkable in what may seem mundane, proves to be the ideal filmmaker to follow Freddy on his three-year journey to become a father, avoiding sensationalizing the incredible events that unfold before her lens while illuminating what’s special about it. Evincing a light touch in intimate interviews and phone conversations, “Seahorse” is delicate in its approach but mightily powerful in what it portrays about the human experience and as the director and McConnell were in New York to celebrate the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, they spoke of how to convey such an internal story onscreen, how Finlay was able to balance out her responsibilities to the film while making a documentary about the final season of “Game of Thrones,” and being informed by giving birth herself.
How did this come about?
Freddy McConnell: Aside from my plans to start a family, I felt like I would want to document it somehow because I’m a journalist by trade and I know the power of storytelling, but I also decided that I didn’t actually want to make the film because it would be too much and it’s not my expertise. So I set about putting a team together and met Jeanie through that process. Immediately, I felt like “yeah, that feels good” and I think she explained my concept back to me better than I said to her in the first place. [laughs]
Jeanie Finlay: Oh, that’s nice. This was unusual for me [since] I usually go out and I find my own stories, and I turn everything down – I say no to everything apart from Freddy and “Game of Thrones.” [laughs] But as soon as I met Freddy, and he told me about what he wanted to do, it really made me reflect deeply on what my experience had been when I had a baby 15 years ago. It just raised loads of questions for me, and when there’s a lot of questions, I’m interested. And I thought we were really different people, and a film can sometimes happen in the space in between, so I was immediately intrigued.
So I said to Freddy “Look, if I do this, I’m all in and I’m completely committed, so let’s go for it” and it was an adventure that no one knew what was going to happen. It was a complete risk, because there was no guarantees of anything – no guarantee that Freddy would be able to get pregnant, that it would be successful, that everything would be okay, and also just for the film, [whether] I would be able to be there with timing when Freddy gave birth? And would it be straightforward? Because if there’s any complications, you’re not trooping in with a camera.
Were there moments when you had second thoughts about bringing in the cameras?
Freddy McConnell: Yeah definitely. I’m inclined that way anyway. I’m a second guess-y type anxious person, but my original motivation remained steadfast throughout, even when I had really difficult moments and was feeling overwhelmed. or finding everything about it really difficult. I would think back and ask myself those original questions and as long as they still rang true, I just knew it would kind of be okay in the end. I trusted the process, I trusted the team and trusted Jeanie.
Since it’s a largely internal emotional journey Freddy has, is that more difficult to convey as a narrative than your previous films where there’s something very tangible as a storyline?
Jeanie Finlay: It was definitely a different process. Formally, I wanted to challenge myself with the filmmaking because I’m really interested in the flow of emotion and how you can build that in a story. Some of the previous ones I made like “The Great Hip Hop Hoax,” “Orion,” and prior to that, “Sound It Out,” were all stories about the past, which I had to go delving and be like an archeologist and that’s really fascinating, but you have to rely on lots of interviews and a talking-head [style] and I don’t want to do that anymore because I want very much the film to suggest the form. So when I was making “Seahorse,” I was really mindful of “What does this experience feel like? What’s the atmosphere that I feel when I’m with Freddy, and can we represent that through observation or can I create some visuals that will help an audience feel what I felt?” Because being a documentary maker is like being an emotional barometer.
I was training for a half-marathon, I used to run along Deal seafront before we filmed, and I used to really try and meditate and think about what we were doing together, and I just let myself dream and the images that I dreamt about were in the film.
Freddy McConnell: That sounds obvious that a documentary is about that emotion like that, but I don’t think most people would think that was obvious, and that was really important and why it felt right that we work together, because I think a lot of people assume when they think about this documentary they think that it’s going to be voyeuristic – you looking in on me and trying to explain something to other people that are watching, but actually, it’s trying to evoke emotion and feeling, [which] is exactly what I wanted to do with this. I didn’t want it to be like any other trans story told by a third-party who is just observing, but in a very different sense of the word observing.
Jeanie Finlay: Yeah, my favorite filmmaker is Hirokazu Kore-eda, who I worship, and I feel like he channels emotion as paint on a paintbrush and that’s what I would love to achieve one day through my films.
Was there anything specifically you wanted to get across about your experience?
Freddy McConnell: I wanted it to be a particular kind of film, and I didn’t want it to be an issue film – I didn’t set out to send a particular message or educate anyone. I wanted people to come away feeling what they’d seen resonated with some part of their own lives and that they’d seen a film about really universal themes of love and family, and stuff that’s hard in your life no matter what that is. For some people, that’s going to be pregnancy, so that will resonate more, but I hope people maybe feel a bit surprised [when] they go in thinking, “I know what this is going to be because I’ve seen a reality show about this or I’ve seen a photo of a pregnant man in a tabloid newspaper so I know what to expect” and they come away feeling like “that is totally not what I expected.”
I was happy to see, but also surprised, that there didn’t appear to be any resistance by any of the clinics or other services you engage to aid with your pregnancy. Did you actually find any?
Freddy McConnell: There is in the world, but I think I was probably lucky to an extent. I find that when you are interacting with human beings [in a real live] interaction, people generally are more accepting that what you think they would be based on Twitter and in tabloid headlines, or the kind of discourse in media, so it’s not like we cherry-picked all the positive bits. That just was my experience – an incredibly positive experience. And I approached people in the way that I wanted them to approach me. Maybe I’m more confident or maybe my whiteness and my middle-classness helped me pass in this kind of situation, And that’s really not the way it should be, but I want to also acknowledge the fact that that is a factor for sure.
Jeanie Finlay: Also, the birthing center that you gave birth in Margate was extraordinary. I wish I’d given birth there. It was so much nicer than where I was – just in a standard hospital.
Freddy McConnell: It was very quiet as well, that was just amazing, there was just no one else there.
Jeanie Finlay: Got a really beautiful private experience that…
Freddy McConnell: Private but, importantly, on the National Health Service.
How did your phone conversations make it into the film?
Jeanie Finlay: The phone served two purposes really. One of them was just really practical, because I live in Nottingham in the middle of the country, and Freddy lives in Deal in the south-coast, so on a bad day, it’s a five-hour drive to get there, so I couldn’t always be there very quickly if something had happened, so I thought it would be good to start recording the calls. But when we started to record them, it felt intimate in a way that being together with a bulky camera [wasn’t]. There’s no such thing as fly on the wall, and if someone has got a massive camera in your face, it’s hard to ever forget that, so we just started to talk, and sometimes it was because something had happened, and sometimes it was just to catch up. And when you hold the phone close to your ear and you can hear the person’s there, it’s very intimate.
Freddy McConnell: I think I was probably more vulnerable with you on the phone. Not all the time, but probably more than not, and I was definitely able to open up more. Also, I can remember thinking at the beginning of the process that I would get used to the camera being there, but I didn’t. In fact, it probably felt worse over time, because I was struggling more, and I got more resentful of it. And that was difficult in a way that the phone calls never were.
What’s it like to be getting to the finish line and putting this out in to the world?
Freddy McConnell: This is a first for me, I know Jeanie’s [probably thinking this is a] “bit boring.” And it’s weird in every conceivable way, but also I’m really proud of every bit of it, and as strange as it is to know that it’s going to be out there and obviously some of it’s very intimate and intense, I’m just glad that it is the film that it is.
Jeanie Finlay: It’s really important to give birth to your film publicly, and to let your baby go on. This is a really important part of the process, because making films can be very solitary — I feel institutionalized in the edit suite, and I’ve made two films back-to-back over the last two years, and I’ve just been filming, filming, filming, so I’ve just been living these stories in my head and it’s like adolescence, I’m really looking forward to the the Bar Mitzvah or Quinceañera party, having the opportunity to share it. One of the greatest pleasures for me in the world is crying in the dark surrounded by strangers, and if the film I made is eliciting that response, then I couldn’t be happier, so I can’t wait to see what happens.