Jeanie Finlay on the Body of Compassionate Work That Led To “Your Fat Friend”

There’s a moment in “Your Fat Friend” when Pam, the mother of the film’s main subject Aubrey Gordon, confesses that she’s spent the last day thinking about a question that director Jeanie Finlay asked her about whether she thought anything would change, watching her daughter as a teen struggle with deciding to attempt to lose weight at an age when she was still growing into both her body and her mind. In her studio now where she paints and “doesn’t care if anybody else likes it,” she’s prompted to wonder if Aubrey who would be mercilessly teased for being fat at school was facing similar pressure at home, unintended or not, to change and you can see Pam work through a variety of emotions in front of the camera in only a matter of seconds, trying to decide what role she may have had in diminishing her daughter’s self-esteem.

“You know, Pam, Aubrey’s mum, was never going to be in the film,” Finlay says now, recently letting go of the film after a six-year gestation. “And because the film took so long, I had a chance to get to know her and what the audience doesn’t see is the three years it took for Pam to allow me to film her. Those things are things that are very hard won.”

And yet it’s what makes Finlay’s work always so richly rewarding, often profiling people who are unaware they’re doing extraordinary things until she comes around with a camera. The director, who recognized the sacred spot her late friend Tom Butchart had created with a record store in Teeside in “Sound It Out” and followed the remarkable experience of Freddy McConnell, a trans man intent on starting a family in “Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth,” discovered Gordon, an anonymous blogger in the Pacific Northwest just as she began to find notoriety with her refreshingly blunt writing on her Web site Your Fat Friend where she railed against polite terminology regarding her weight and has reframed conversations around what society’s issues are with it.

One look at Gordon now makes it easy to understand why she thought she had a movie star in her midst with how confident and charismatic as she carries herself, a rare situation where the writer is as bold in private as the words she puts on the page. However, “Your Fat Friend” captures her at a critical juncture, signing a book contract that will necessitate a more public persona, which given the amount of online hate that comes her way even in anonymity is a daunting prospect, and the book “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat” itself necessitates a fair amount of reflection on how she’s come to view herself in the way that she has and the influence of her parents, now divorced and somewhat estranged, if not from her, from one another. While Gordon approaches life with admirable brashness, Finlay’s gentility in observing her illuminates how that attitude was formed and as Gordon builds a collection of diet books to make fun of in their unbelievable promises, “Your Fat Friend” becomes a document that can’t be put down in any way, celebrating someone who has found the power in their voice and has used it to speak up for so many others.

After spending the summer on the festival circuit where it made a triumphant premiere at Tribeca and earned an audience award for best documentary at Sheffield, “Your Fat Friend” is returning to the States and England in the month ahead beginning with a run at the DCTV Firehouse in New York this week before heading abroad and Finlay, who was feted earlier this year with a retrospective on the Criterion Channel, graciously took the time to talk about the collaborations and the previous films that laid the groundwork for her latest, making a cross-continental film in the midst of a global pandemic, and the conversations it sparks.

From what I understand, the last time we talked for “Seahorse,” you were actually working on this. How did this come about?

It’s been a bit of a long journey, and as documentary makers, you quite often have more than one project on the boil. But I met Aubrey about six years ago and I wanted to make a film about fatness. I could see the word “fat” seeping into Instagram from fat politics spaces and it’s such a small word — three letters — but it’s so potent and activates so many feelings in people. And I thought, “This is interesting. I’m going to make an essay film about fatness, Adam Curtis-style. Then I started doing research and met with some fashion bloggers and went to some different things and it wasn’t quite right. But when I read Aubrey’s piece, that first piece “When I Talk About Bodies” that went viral, I just loved it, so I thought, “Here it is. It’s personal. It’s political. It made me feel stuff.” So I got in contact with Aubrey quite quickly and we just started talking. There was this idea in the back of my mind as well that she was anonymous — I made “Orion: The Man Who Would Be King” about a masked person and people who’ve had different personas — so I thought, that’s intriguing.

I was in L.A. [at the time] for “Game of Thrones” and I took it as an opportunity to go and see Aubrey [in the Pacific Northwest]. As soon as I met her, I knew I found my film. I just ditched everything else. She was my film. You’ve got this uber-articulate charisma bomb of a person and then you’ve got her equally lovely family, but they’re unable to even say fat. It’s a really hard needle to thread for the parents of adults to see adults as independent people in the world, apart from just being their children. And at that point, I think they were not quite there yet, so you’re definitely seeing an invisibility that was definitely present and [there’s this] idea that you can try and change the world, but what if trying to change your mum or your dad’s mind to get them to see you could be the hardest thing of all? I just thought the distance between them was my film.

In the film, it appears to be a pretty condensed timeline, but when it took six years including a pandemic in the middle of it and you’re having to cross the pond, when were you deciding to make the trips to film?

It was challenging because I was on “Seahorse and “Game of Thrones: The Last Watch,” and “Game of Thrones” film took me to the West Coast a number of times, so I’d always go and see Aubrey. At the beginning of that process, I picked up the film and [planned to] go full steam ahead in February 2020 and I left my camera gear because I had a flight booked for March 20th, 2020. I had a number of discussions with Aubrey about, “Do you think that this virus is a real thing? Do you think I’ll be able to film?” I ended up having to teach Aubrey how to use one of the four cameras that I’d left with varied results, but we were always filming, whether it was me holding the camera or not. Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, who are filmmakers I love, were my buddies in Portland, [as well as] Lindsay Trapnell, a great DP, and Angelica Ponce, so I worked remotely [as I was] working on “Game of Thrones” and [that] also taught me that I don’t have to always be holding the camera when I’m directing because I’m in every frame in terms of the decisions that are made. On the other side of that, a lot of the stuff with [Aubrey] in the in the outdoor pool, that’s just me and Aubrey filming together. There is no one else there, and it was really wonderful to be back in Portland after the pandemic. I was given special dispensation to enter the U.S. before it was fully open, so we filmed quite a lot at the tail end of the pandemic in Portland.

When that’s the situation, I’m always curious when when you’re being sent stuff directly by Aubrey, is it interesting to see what she wants to film?

It is, but it’s very collaborative. God bless Zoom. We would talk more than once a week and I would guide [her slightly], “Oh, this sounds good. Can we film this? Can you film that?” Or make suggestions about where to put the camera. But [for instance] the Adele thing, I had no idea. She just sent me the footage from Adele [liking her post], and she told me afterwards. I remember watching it with Alice Powell, the editor I worked with on “Seahorse” [as well], and we were just screaming. It was so funny. And also Aubrey thought that when it was overexposed, that meant it was in focus, so everything’s a bit soft, but it doesn’t matter because what’s happening is so great.

It isn’t an essay film, but still it’s built around all this powerful writing that Aubrey has done online. What was it like to find the right visual language to correspond?

It’s a challenge because with Alice and I joked on “Seahorse” that we had to get Freddy pregnant — to get audiences on board — [and here it was the same] with the work that Aubrey’s trying to do. Her work speaks for itself, so you understand it and illustrate it, but I wanted you to be in Aubrey’s head because she’s anonymous [at that point] and these things she’s putting out into the world are very evocative and emotional, and it’s a florid use of language, so I wanted to bring that to life in the place where it had been written. She used to drive around Oregon looking at the Pacific Northwest as she typed away on her laptop, so I loved this idea of this woman looking at waterfalls, thinking about changing the world. Her mission is exciting, and what we were trying to do was get people on board and help them to understand and Aubrey is one of the best advocates to do that, so using her writing certainly helps.

Was there a direction this took that you may not have expected when you were starting out?

Completely. It’s one of the great things about making long-form observational documentary when it’s independent — and this was funded by Field of Vision and the BFI Doc Society. They gave me the freedom to follow my nose and find the best story. Obviously, you have a destination in mind when the train leaves the station, but initially it was going to be a film about Aubrey coming out. She’s no longer going to be anonymous. It might be about her getting doxxed. But because of the time elapsed, it was much more about Aubrey really finding an audience for her writing. Right now in 2023, Maintenance Phase [her podcast with Michael Hobbes] has had over 60 million downloads. It’s really a reference point for people in terms of what anti-fat bias exists and how to think about that and it’s changing the conversation. And I didn’t want to replicate that work, so for me the film is really about the act of Aubrey becoming visible to the world, but also to herself and to her mum and dad. Because it’s really tough to have those conversations with people that you love and who formed you. Your parents know how to press your buttons because they instilled them, but those familial conversations can be really powerful.

That’s the best way I’ve ever heard anybody put it, and I was so fascinated to hear you bring up “Orion” earlier because this absolutely has a connection to that film, but to “Seahorse” as well when you’re thinking about bodies and social acceptance. Has there been a lot of cross-pollination as you’ve been working on these films?

Yeah. it’s interesting looking back and having people start to join the dots and thinking about what’s my value system in making films. In June, I had my Criterion Collection [program of] “the Documentaries of Jeanie Finlay” that feels weird to say out loud, and the thing that I’ve fought for more as I’ve gotten older, is the space where I can think and reflect. I want to push myself with every film and I want to use radical empathy. So in the olden days when I was making “Orion,” that was a film that we got funded very late on in the process, so a lot of it was like, “Let’s just grab it.” I’d be in the States doing a screening [of another one of my films] and we’d go and grab another interview. Stuart Schuyler Copeland, my DP, would pick me up and we’d just go and shoot the next thing. There was never any time and never any funding. With this, there’s a bit more. I had a bit of freedom of time to really think about it. Like, what does Aubrey’s body look like in this situation? And how can we film it? What does it mean to spend time with their family?

So I guess as I get older and I make more films, I know that I can trust the process and the things that are important to me politically and personally in terms of my filmmaking. I know with “Seahorse,” what’s been very gratifying is doing screenings of “Your Fat Friend” at festivals and members of the audience standing up and saying, “I saw ‘Seahorse,’ my child is trans and it helped us to have a really difficult conversation.” I think that films in this world can do that. Roger Ebert called documentary an “empathy machine,” and I don’t want to grandstand and overthink about what I can do, but I know that a film can be a tool in a conversation.

“Your Fat Friend” is playing in New York at the DCTV Firehouse through December 14th. It will begin a tour across England and Ireland in January, starting at the Picturehouse Central in London on January 12th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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