VIDEO EXCLUSIVE: Freddie McDonnell, Transgender Man Who Gave Birth, On Documentary ‘Seahorse’
Documentary filmmaker Jeanie Finlay‘s (Game of Thrones: The Last Watch)’s next feature film is an intimate look at the life of Freddie McDonnell, a British transgender man who chose to carry his own baby to term. The documentary, Seahorse, is named for the species whose males carry their children. Finlay and McDonnell sat down with uInterview exclusively at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival to discuss Freddie’s story and the inspiration behind making the film.
McDonell said he wanted to make a film that told his story “the way trans stories usually aren’t told when they’re told on a large scale, either for TV or for the film. It would be respectful and real and moving and relatable, and it would do a good job of showing people who are completely unfamiliar with these ideas that it’s not a completely mind-blowing thing but something I can relate to.”
Spanning three years, the film follows 30-year-old Freddie from his quest to get pregnant and through the pregnancy, providing a detailed picture of the struggles he faced along the way, both physically and emotionally, alone and from others. It also chronicles his relationship with his mother and with his former partner CJ, who began the pregnancy process with him.
“Nothing was really off the table,” Finlay said of the intimacy of the film. “I trusted you,” said McDonnell. “When there was stuff I felt uncomfortable about, we talked about it and about how this is the process and it’s better to have it than not. I wanted your crazy vision to come through but also for me to be able to fill in what I knew and my expertise around the pitfalls.”
As for the process, Finlay said they took it day by day.
“I threw out the writing-my-questions-out approach to filmmaking a long long time ago,” she said. “I feel like it’s my job to listen to what Freddie’s talking about, and observe. There’s no such thing as a fly on the wall, anyone who tells you that, it’s a load of rubbish. What we need is to find the film is about change over time, and atmosphere, and how we’re going to tell that story… This wasn’t ever going to be a film where I had him stand next to a picture of Freddie as a teenager, looking sad before you transitioned. Or to speak your dead name. You know, no one needs to know that.”
The film, which will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, is produced by Andrea Cornwell and Orlando Von Einsiedel (The White Helmets) and Charlie Phillips (5 Broken Films) from The Guardian Documentaries
See the full trailer for Seahorse below, followed by a full transcript of the exclusive interview:
Q: Tell us about how you heard about Freddie’s story and how you two came together to work on this film.
Finlay: It’s quite an unusual film for me because I usually find my own stories and go out and make them, but [in this case] I was invited by Charlie Phillips at The Guardian to come and meet with Freddie because he was looking for a filmmaker to come and tell his story. And as soon as I met Freddie I was just- I had so many questions. So I just thought that this was a story I really wanted to tell and it made me think a lot about what it was like for me when I had my baby. You know I had a daughter fifteen years ago. I thought it was too intriguing.
McDonnell: I knew that I wanted to document this process but then thinking quite quickly after that I don’t quite know if I want to do it myself and if I did it wouldn’t be on the scale I thought would make it worthwhile in terms of the emotion and time commitment that it would involve. And I’m a journalist but I’m not a filmmaker so I wanted someone who really knew what they were doing. So I went to Charlie and we spoke to about half a dozen filmmakers. We met Jeannie I think it was like halfway through that process and something just immediately clicked and she kind of summed up everything that Sd’ said very quickly and said it back to me and I realized, ‘oh you get this, and it would be a proper film.’
Q: Freddie, can you tell us about how you arrived at the decision to have a baby?
McDonnell: I came out at university, realized I was trans and came out. I was about twenty-two, twenty-three at the time. Then I’d always known that I wanted to have a family one day. I spent many years thinking at first that if I transition it would mean I couldn’t carry a baby myself, that’s what you’re told when you start to transition, certainly in the UK. So I made peace with that for a while but then the idea was still there, the desire to be a parent was still there. I came across a Youtube video by a trans guy who decided to be pregnant and so that was really incredible to see and it changed everything really because I had been told that that wasn’t possible. And then I spent another few years thinking ‘can I do that?’ I had come out at university but then started my medical transition a couple of years after that and that was such a great experience for me, so the right thing for me to do, that it was hard to imagine pausing that or stopping that and I didn’t really know what it would involve. But eventually, I lived abroad for a short amount of time for work, and being so far away from home showed me what I wanted and that I needed to go home and start a family. I knew I would have family support and I had friends and by that point, I had heard a couple more stories of trans men carrying their own babies in various setups. And I knew I had a supportive doctor. And somewhere into the whole process, I realized that I think I could do a good job of putting a team together to tell this story in a way that would feel… well, the way trans stories usually aren’t told when they’re told on a large scale, either for TV or for the film. It would be respectful and real and moving and relatable, and it would do a good job of showing people who are completely unfamiliar with these ideas that it’s not a completely mind-blowing thing but something I can relate to. So those processes started around the same time. They were always quite separate, my priority was starting my family safely and healthily, but because it worked in terms of putting a team together with my input and with my consent at all times but also somewhat separately and being led by a person who I trusted. I don’t know why, it was just a feeling.
Q: You started this process with a partner CJ and then you broke up. What was that shift like?
McDonnell: At that time, it was a big change. In that short space of time when we were going to co-parent, we were never sort of together, we had a sort of queer set-up where we were friends and we were gonna co-parent and have a family together. But you know even before that I had thought I would do it by myself or with a partner no matter what. Because of the way transition interacts with your ability to conceive I kind of felt like I was on the clock slightly, so I always knew I was going to do it then. And the fact that I was going to do it with CJ to begin with and then that didn’t work but we remain great friends, and I think it was definitely for the best that we didn’t co-parent together.
Q: What was the process like?
Finlay: I do long-distance running and you don’t think about the race or the distance you’ve run, you just think about the steps you’re taking. So that’s what we did, we just took it day by day, week by week. There were some things that seemed important to capture like we definitely have to get your scan and things like the birth, but will I be there? Could I get to the hospital on time? Would you have a straightforward birth? Would the cameras mess up? Would I see it? I threw out the writing-my-questions-out approach to filmmaking a long long time ago. I feel like it’s my job to listen to what Freddie’s talking about, and observe. There’s no such thing as a fly on the wall, anyone who tells you that, it’s a load of rubbish. What we need is to find the film is about change over time, and atmosphere, and how we’re going to tell that story. So I would go for these long runs and dream about the film and really sort of meditating and how I was feeling and how I could create visuals and atmosphere that would enable the audience to access that emotion. And nothing was really off the table.
McDonnell: I trusted you. When there was stuff I felt uncomfortable about, we talked about it and about how this is the process and it’s better to have it… I think from my perspective I set out less with ‘this is what I do and don’t want to share’ but more like ‘this is the kind of story I don’t want to see again on screen about a trans person,’ so we talked a lot about tropes… I wanted your crazy vision to come through but also for me to be able to fill in what I knew and my expertise around the pitfalls.
Finlay: This wasn’t ever going to be a film where I had him stand next to a picture of Freddie as a teenager, looking sad before you transitioned. Or to speak your dead name. You know, no one needs to know that.