After winning the Audience Award at Sheffield Doc Fest Your Fat Friend is showing as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Ahead of the film’s screening I got to chat to director Jeanie Finlay.
SYNOPSIS: Aubrey Gordon, writes anonymously as “Your Fat Friend” about what it means to be a very fat woman in the world. Her searingly honest writing describes in intimate, humorous and unflinching detail what it’s like to be that fat person on the plane, and how the fantasies, peddled by a diet and wellness industry worth $26 billion a year, are on a par with the lies that Big Tobacco told the public in the 1950s.
Filmed over 6 years, we follow Aubrey’s rise from anonymous blogger to best selling author and co-host of one of the biggest podcasts in the world and public figure. Charting how it feels to live in a very fat body, and the pain and triumph of trying to change your family… and a world where you just don’t fit.
AM. I’ve read that the film took about 6 years to come together, at what point in that journey did you figure out that the core of the film was going to be the dichotomy of Aubrey’s successful public work and her struggle to make the progress she wants in her private circle?
JF. I guess in documentaries you always sort of write the film in the edit, and I work very collaboratively with my editor Alice Powell. But just rewinding a bit, the very first time I met Aubrey – I originally asked her to just write a voiceover for an essay film about fatness I was making – and then as soon as I met her I abandoned the whole previous year’s work, and just went “Oh you’re the film!”. And part of that was this deeply engaging and emotional writing that really came from her. She just seemed to have a different voice when she was anonymous. I got her to read out the first piece that she wrote, and she used this different voice, and then she talked sort of vaguely about her parents. When I went back a few months later I met her mum and her dad, on separate [occasions]. And her dad couldn’t even use the word “fat”. He really struggled to say “fat”, and he didn’t read any of her work, and I thought this is really fascinating. On the one hand you have got someone who is really personable, easy to talk to, funny – they all have this great sense of humour, but her parents are both at very different places, and for me that space in between that is where the film lies. I had a sense then that that was the film, because that was somewhere to go. What does it mean to have a massive ambition of changing the world and having that deep audience connection that means that you actually do, versus can you have the messy conversations with the people that live in your house? Cause often the cry is coming from inside the house. And these are the most challenging conversations to have. Being fat is the number one reason children are bullied. Often it is the parents putting their kids on diets because they are scared of their children getting bullied. And they are sending them off on a journey that might lead to lifelong yoyo dieting or a mental health toll.
So quite early on… I had no idea that Aubrey’s writing was going to take off in the way that is did. Her podcast just hit 55 million downloads, she has a global audience. So it seemed even clearer to me. I mean she is getting recognised in public, by voice or even visibly now. What does that mean for her family? Cause there is an assumption there that things are sorted, but she is still doing the work. I think she says in the film: “I get all these emails from all these people asking how do I do it? And I don’t know cause I am still in it”. That felt really resonant to me, that notion.
AM. So I have been watching a lot of your previous work. And throughout your journey, you’ve grown into your documentaries more and more, we hear more from you, is that something that has been a conscious decision – that you have wanted to put more of yourself in?
JF. The first two films I made you don’t hear my voice at all, at that point as a baby filmmaker and as an artist for many years – when you’re an artist the idea of the artist’s voice is that it is inherent in the work, and so I really sort of believed that when I first started making films. When I made Sound it Out, it felt like quite a turning point for me. I crowdfunded the film, it was about my home, it was about growing up in the North East as an outsider and finding a bunch of outsiders, and finding community through music. In one sense it is a pragmatic thing and they are asking questions. It sort of felt important because these interactions are happening because I am there, at that moment, with a camera. And so now I really lean into that. This is about our chemistry, our relationship. It is about the relationship I have built up with Aubrey over 6 years, and with her family, and the non-binary consent that we have brought to the filmmaking. Those things are different than if you just show up and just hoist a camera it is a very different relationship. It feels like an honesty in voicing that, and being visible. There is a point in Your Fat Friend when Pam, Aubrey’s mum, is standing in the kitchen, and she’s thinking, she’s been going through it, and she says, “There is something about having a camera going”. So it is just me filming, and you see my zoom, and you see my focus. And I could cut round that, but I have kept it in on purpose so you can show that ‘this is happening right now!’. I want it to feel intimate, that the audience is there with me, ‘look at what happened cause I was there!’. So I keep those little camera movements in on purpose to show you where my eye was looking, does that make sense?
AM. That makes perfect sense!
JF. It’s now much more mindful. So, I’ve just done a press interview and they said, “We’re going to cut out the interviewer’s voice, so give full answers”. And I used to do that, say “Can you try and put the question in the answer?”. Real human beings don’t speak like that, and so if I keep my voice in it, then it allows people to be much more relaxed.
AM. So in the film [Your Fat Friend] you are invited into quite a private space, inside this family unit, and you ask something that changes their relationship a little bit, it sparks this conversation that they have – how did it feel for you as a filmmaker to be inside this family space, to change something?
JF. It felt immense. Aubrey’s mum, Pam, is an incredibly thoughtful and generous person who thinks carefully. If you ask her how she is, she doesn’t go, “I’m fine, I’m fine”. She really gives things a lot of thought and the generosity of her to be aware of what is going on and for that to have an impact, felt really amazing. Normally that stuff happens when the film is done. It’s done, it is out in the world and people have time for things to settle. Sometimes making a film is like throwing a stone into a lake and the sometimes ripples are bigger than others. I don’t believe in fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, I’m too tall! You know, I’m present. Of course it has an impact on people. It would be disingenuous to ignore it, it’s unethical.
AM. Unethical to ignore it?
JF. Unethical to ignore the role that documentary filmmaking can play in people’s lives. I also think, in terms of that, the collaborative process I had with Aubrey, she’s not a dummy, she’s using the film. I think that the film was an opportunity to have a conversation that is much more difficult to say out loud with her family. The film is a vehicle for a tricky conversation, albeit on a much bigger platform. I have noticed that’s what happens. I was here at the festival in 2013 with The Great Hip Hop Hoax, and when I was making that film the boys didn’t talk to each other at all, they talked to me. And then they re-united after the film.
AM. Oh really?
JF. Yeah they played at the party here. They re-united, they both came to America for the film premiere at SXSW, and we had Silibil’ N’ Brains rapping at the film party. Yeah, the film became an opportunity for reconciliation.
AM. That’s really cool.
Across all of your films, you manage to get people who feel quite vulnerable to open up and share quite a lot with you. It is one of the nicest things about watching a lot of your films. How do you manage to get people to feel comfortable with you and to share something quite private and intimate with you?
JF. I don’t know. I guess I spent a lot of time with people, and Your Fat Friend is my ninth feature film, and I have shown with my previous feature films that I want people to recognise themselves, and not feel foolish for having taken part. And I’m very protective of people’s stories, I think that earns me a lot of trust. Saying that, some people just jump into being in a film. I have no idea what I have done before, and they just take it on completely face value, and they trust me, and I don’t know why. But I try. It is a big responsibility, and I guard it very sensitively. It is my job to make sure that everyone who has taken part in the film, but also those that have trusted me with their money, are happy with the film. And that I can live with it. I want to make films I can live with. That I love like my children. But in terms of getting people to open up… I think that when I was an artist for many years I was desperate to tell stories, and I found it really frustrating, that it was a hard thing to do. When I started making films, I just thought ‘Oh my God, I’ve found the thing I’m meant to do!’. I think I’m meant to be a documentary maker. I think I’m good at getting people to talk to me. It sounds arrogant to own what you’re good at, but I know that this is what I am good at.
AM. But it is true!
JF. But it took me a long time to learn that. I think that is because of the people I choose to focus on. I don’t like show-offs. I don’t mind loud people, but I’m always asking, why are they so loud? So I ask a lot of small gentle questions, and I allow people to come to me. We go on a little walk, psychologically. We go on a little meander. Sometimes there are things that I want them to talk about, but often if you are listening you get a million other things that you are not even looking for. It is like going foraging in the woods, you don’t know what you are going to find. But you have got to listen. I used to write all my questions down, but I don’t write them down anymore because I am listening to what people say. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t done a fuckload of preparation. I do all my prep.
AM. A lot of your films are available right now on the platform True Story [in the UK], and in America on the Criterion Channel, how does it feel to have the breadth of your work be so accessible for everyone to see?
JF. It’s beautiful. It’s really interesting actually. I sort of feel like I have been holed away in Nottingham just making my films. It’s a cheap place to live, it doesn’t have a film community, it is just a few people based in an amazing cinema, The Broadway Cinema. I just get on and make the work. I usually have one in development, one on the road, one that I am actively making – so at the moment I am making a film, I’m a year in. So having retrospectives is a real opportunity for people to connect the dots and see the things that I wasn’t necessarily thinking about. I want to have a discovery on every project, and I thought there would be a point where I don’t want to make films anymore, and I really still do. Next week, I am going to New Mexico. I got a Chicken and Egg award at the beginning of the year, and part of that is unrestricted funds that you can spend on anything. I want to keep learning, so I am going to the University of New Mexico to hang out at the lab. The DP that shot Your Fat Friend and Orion, Stewart Copeland, is a professor of visual animation there. So I am going to learn the ways that new technology is shaping the way that we create imagery. To learn new skills.
AM. What do you mean by the way new technology is shaping imagery?
JF. They are doing a lot of 3D printing and projection mapping. You don’t know what you don’t know. I want to have new skills in my arsenal. And just go and stand in the desert and get weird. It’s just good to be uncomfortable. I could just sit at home and remake the same film over and over again but I don’t want to do that. On Your Fat Friend I was really thinking about how to make images and how to marry this casual intimacy of observation that is just me and the person, and all the camera moves. Then to also have these heightened visual moments, you know, naked ladies in the woods, and delving a camera underneath the water. Really live and sit with the work. Making Your Fat Friend – I don’t know if you have ever been to Oregon, but it rains all of the time. There are these mountains that are carved from this Pacific North West rain. Aubrey writes about anti-fatness being the river that we swim in every day, and I kept thinking about the way that water wears away at the body. And that the people in Oregon look like, I don’t know, like they have been in the river a bit. That it has had an effect on them. So I kept thinking about that with Aubrey, so we put her in a bunch of pools that made her look like a mountain range, and hired the swimming pool that she trained in as a kid. I want to push myself on every project.
AM. I attended the talk that you did with Paul Sng at Glasgow Film Festival, and you spoke about the myth that everything has to be London centric in the UK, and that you are not there but making all these great films. I know you mentioned Nottingham before but I wondered if you wanted to say any more about that?
JF. We’re at a very precarious time with independent documentary at the moment. Funding has never been more difficult to raise. The rise of the streamers, the pandemic, the long tail of Brexit. It is all having a toll on people, and it is decimating funding. It is making it more difficult. DCMS are researching at the moment, and people like Doc Society are listening, and the thing that is heartening is that independent documentary does get money. People like Doc Society are absolutely integral in the UK. Because I want the stories that see and hear to be made by people that reflect the diversity of the UK, not just the people that I met when I got into film – private educated, mainly men, deeply privileged people that had never set foot out of London, who would ask the most inept questions about Nottingham. They would assume it was the North when it is in fact the Midlands. There is a lot of push for diversity in this country but I would like the diversity to also expand to regional representation and class. I think class is a difficult conversation for people in this country to have. You have seen my films, I like having messy conversations about things that make us feel uncomfortable, like trans issues. It is important to have those messy conversations cause change is slow. But making films in Nottingham is great. What I am trying to do at the moment is nurture more regional talent. There is a big talent drain to London so I am trying to spot people before they leave. It is only like 1% of feature doc production in the whole of the UK happens in the Midlands, and that includes Birmingham! And to be honest I think a lot of it is me. That is not right.