From time to time a story comes along that reels you in, shakes you up and then grabs at your heart and squeezes it a few times. SEAHORSE was one of those films for me. An incredibly moving and deeply intimate documentary that follows the journey of Freddy McConnell, a gay transgender man who decides to carry his own baby.
The film opens on a peaceful image of a seahorse effortlessly gliding through the water. Seahorses are almost unique in the animal kingdom as the male of the species carries and births his own offspring. In the private world of the sea where judgements don’t exist, the seahorse’s birthing journey will flow as it should. Above water however, Freddy faces a rocky road ahead as he strives to bring his dream to fruition in the face of family disapproval, opinionated societal commentary and the inner conflict and hormonal havoc necessary to give birth to the child he so longs for. The serene floating seahorse is quickly interrupted by a shot of Freddy as he tracks the changes his testosterone treatment is having on his body.
What follows is a beautifully tender documentation of Freddy’s challenging passage to birthing a child as a man in a world where transgender are still fighting for respect, dignity and safety (basic human rights), and the concept of gender fluidity is only recently finding acknowledgement. Talented and rising UK director Jeanie Finlay gives us amazingly private access to a significantly profound slice of Freddy’s life. Gently inviting the viewer into an intimate world, Finlay together with Freddy, a journalist himself, quickly make us feel up close and personal to the subject and his family.
Freddy talks frankly about going off testosterone in order to restart his menstrual cycle in preparation for insemination and how he feels soft and “like I’m shrinking from the inside” and “weirdly emotional about everything”. Naturally the shift back to a female hormone cycle becomes traumatic for someone who has identified as male from a very early age and hence the internal conflict and emotional rollercoaster begins.
Like a privileged ‘friend of a friend’ who’s been invited along for the ride, we join all aspects of Freddy’s journey as he and his partner CJ take the steps towards the first insemination. The excitement on Freddy’s face when his ovulation is peaking is palpable and equally so the disappointment when the first attempt at conception fails. As CJ reaches across to hold Freddy’s hand in this emotional moment, we’re already right by Freddy’s side, rooting for him like a protective sibling and determined that he succeed.
When CJ makes the decision to pull out as co-parent and partner, Freddy moves to his hometown of Deal, a sweet, cosy and comforting looking seaside village in Kent, England, where his devoted mother takes on the key role as companion and supporter. Finlay’s supremely empathetic direction is evident as she documents deeply sensitive and personal moments such as the shaky vulnerability and overwhelming joy of waiting for a pregnancy test result that is ultimately positive. Freddy constructing a very difficult email to his estranged father about his decision to parent, and an intensely awkward scene at a family lunch when a family member confronts Freddy’s notions of gender fluidity and political correctness.
Tenderly edited by Alice Powell, the film takes us increasingly deeper into Freddy’s life as we cut between his present day mission to have a baby and shots taken from home-videos as a young child. The heartbreaking estrangement from his father who refuses to accept Freddy as transgender is all the more real and relatable through the raw lens of childhood.
Finlay’s ability to be a compassionate, silent witness becomes most profound in the water birth scene with Freddy and his mother. It has to be the most raw, shockingly intimate and deeply moving thing I have ever witnessed. Finlay claims Seahorse took “3 years of love and steel to make”. Her deep commitment and grit shows in a triumphant work that has the power to break down walls of stereotyping and expand the world of parenthood beyond our restricted notions.
Sadly, the UK court recently ruled against Freddy’s request to be registered as a father claiming that motherhood is about being pregnant and giving birth. Clearly there is more work to be done in opening our minds to what parenthood can be, but the path is unfolding. One thing is for sure, Seahorse will challenge all your preconceived ideas on what it is to be a parent, but in the most loving, inviting and gentle way. Anyone who knows the life changing vulnerability of becoming a mother or father, or has longed for any kind of deeper, meaningful bond will certainly connect to this honest and brave story.
Written by Nick Dale
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