Director: Jeanie Finlay
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
The male seahorse has quite a burden to carry. Not only does he have to carry the female’s eggs in a pouch until they hatch, releasing them into the ocean fully developed, but also the seahorse now stands as a symbol for the unpredictability of gender roles in the modern age. Jeanie Finlay’s beautifully shot documentary demonstrates that men can give birth to their babies.
Freddie McConnell is a trans man. As the film starts, Finlay’s camera explores McConnell’s body, focussing on the hair on his chest, the bristles of his beard, and the scars of his double mastectomy. The camera here is not intrusive, nor is it gratuitous. Instead, it is matter-of-fact, and the scene swiftly changes as we see Freddie cycling through London or pumping iron in the gym. In a voice-over we hear him remembering his first shot of testosterone: ‘Quite quickly I was being read as male all the time. I felt invincible.’ And yet despite being a man, Freddie wants to give birth to his own child. Not as a mother, but as a father. As he says, he’s got the ‘hardware’ and he will use it.
Seahorse is not about Freddie’s transition from woman to man, even though the occasional home movie from Freddie’s family archive challenges us to see the boy in the girl he once was, as she snuggles up to her dog or shows off her new clothes. Seahorse is about Freddie’s desire to get pregnant and then give birth. At the start of the film, Freddie has a partner of sorts, CJ, another trans man (but who chooses the pronoun of ‘they’ rather than ‘he’). Together Freddie and CJ start looking for sperm donors on the internet. CJ is Trinidadian, but they struggle to find any sperm from black donors in the sperm banks they visit online. They want their family to look likely.
In many ways Seahorse is a companion piece to A Deal with the Universe, Jason Barker’s film about his own struggles to get pregnant, which came out earlier this year. Barker’s film was shot on a shoestring and 25 hours of video footage was cut down to 90 minutes, most of the scenes recorded in his council flat. While this provided intimacy, it also added a claustrophobic layer to Barker’s story. Seahorse has a wider vision.
This longer, broader reach is made possible through the support of the BBC, The Guardian and The Wellcome Trust. Finlay is able to travel between London, where Freddie sometimes lives with CJ, and Deal where Freddie grew up and where his supportive mother still lives. Finlay also travels to Spain to visit Freddie and his mother on holiday. Scenes are separated by shots of nature; the inevitable seahorse pushing through water, or birds, perhaps starlings in murmurations, filling up the sky. These interludes, most set to quizzical music by Tara Creme, suggest that a man giving birth is just another aspect of the wonders of nature.
For the most part, Finlay is a discreet presence in the film, but we hear her occasional question, and her voice on the phone, where Freddie feels more comfortable discussing his feelings. But Finlay is best when she’s a silent observer at an event such as a ‘mothers’ meeting’ that Freddie’s mother organises. One woman seems surprised that Freddie will call himself ‘dad’ rather than ’mum’. Other family scenes reveal fears and accusations, with one girl covering her head ashamed of what her mother is saying. Scenes like these remind the viewer that what Freddie is doing is unusual as otherwise the film tells a familiar story about the struggle to conceive and give birth. It’s a credit to Finlay, and Freddie, increasingly serious as the film progresses, that this step towards fatherhood seems so normal, simultaneously exceptional and unexceptional.
Seahorse is quietly challenging, telling a story that may become more common in years to come. Dignified and ultimately inspirational, this is not the future, but the world of today.
Released: 30 August 2019