We reviewed documentary A Deal With The Universe last week upon its release through Peccadillo Pictures. A poignant intimate journal of a trans man, Jason Barker, who makes a life-changing decision to stop taking testosterone in order to conceive a child, after numerous failed attempts and a breast cancer diagnosis hinders his partner's Tracey chances of conceiving.
Candid Magazine was granted interview time with Barker a few weeks ago, who proved a delightfully pleasant and open interviewee, not only giving us a thorough account of the making of his documentary but also a deep insight into his own personal journey.
Congratulations on your film. I first came across you from your short Silly Girl which I thought was great.
The idea behind that short was about this whole thing of people writing letters to their younger selves saying that it gets better. And I thought, what if the young teenager you wasn't impressed with you. They are like ‘I don’t think so, I’m fine now mate’. Thats the basic idea. But its more a telling of the complexities of trans stories. It’s hard to tell trans stories. The whole thing of casting someone who is a young woman and their adult man equivalent and thinking ‘that’s not how I remember’ and her thinking ‘you’re not who I want to be’.
Why is it hard to tell trans stories?
The complication is that some trans people would say ‘I was always a boy’. How do you cast that? How do you visualize this ‘always being a boy’? I think it’s hard to show the nuances, the categories and language. In the short, the young girl asks him ‘am I girl?” and my character says, ‘it’s just words’. It is just words when you try to define yourself, but it’s difficult with words, to try and pin things down into one specific thing. Even when using pronouns to describe somebody’s past, it all just becomes quite tricky. I think the medium of film can do it really well, being visual explains it much better than words.
With Deal with the Universe what made you decide to take the camera and start filming yourself?
I had made a couple of shorts before, doing a similar sort of method, filming a lot. I made a short in 97, which is having a bit of a revival as an early trans film, and what is interesting about that short, in that time, is that now we have them term non-binary but then that word didn’t exist. People talking about not feeling like this or that. When I made those shorts, I would film a lot, I was filming on super 8 and cutting them together and creating a narrative afterwards.
With Deal with the Universe, I initially thought that this would be a short film about using my eggs. I thought Tracey would get pregnant from the first time we tried it and it would be a little trans short, but then it kept on going on and on. In a way, I was filming waiting for the end to come, but I didn’t know when it was going to end. I didn’t film all the time. I even thought the camera was hexing our efforts, bringing us bad luck. At points, I did think that I was too invested in the film rather than being pregnant. That’s why I didn’t film much when I was pregnant… wouldn’t it be typical if something terrible happened and that would be the end of the film.
Preparing for the interview, I found myself having to refrain from asking you all these really personal questions.
I think that’s a good thing, as I think its connected with you in some way, you feel that you are relaxed with me, as you watched quite a few intimate things about me. I had to learn that. I’ve been doing quite a lot of Q&As with audiences and they would ask all this stuff about my life. At first, I was like ‘Oh my god why are they doing this to me? I’ve already shown you 15 years of my life'. They wanted to ask me even more personal stuff, things that aren't in the film. Its as if they are asking me for the DVD extras. Then a friend of mine, who is a writer, said that was good thing, it was a sign that it resonated with people.
In a Guardian interview you mentioned that post pregnancy you became more relaxed about your gender. What did you mean?
Yes, about my body in general and I did mention in the article about femininity as well. When I transitioned in my twenties it was very binary, very much female to male, or male to female. There were no words to describe anything in between. There was an expectation, say if you were to become a man, you should become this masculine man and that you were heterosexual. And now we are at a stage where a lot of people don’t think that and I certainly don’t put that pressure on myself to look like that.
There is something definitely about pregnancy that’s changed me. Changed my relationship with my body. As I mention in the film, I couldn’t hate my body for producing this wonderful thing. It changed my relationship with things that people find feminine. You know traits such as caring, nurturing, it’s a tiny baby and you’re looking after it. And I love all that stuff that came with it, things I would never imagined I would have enjoyed. Also, the word man, I don’t particularly use it.
So how would you classify yourself now?
Well the whole classifying thing, I find hard… I actually find it harder and harder. I’m middle age now (laughs)… I don’t want to be dreary about it but in my twenties, the whole identity thing of who am I? what am I? was really on the forefront of my mind. You know John Walters?
Well he says after the age 30, you can’t blame your parents, it not cute anymore. You need to take responsibility. I feel like that about identity but when you get to your 40s… it changes. Maybe you have to own it or own the fact that you may never find out completely about who we are.
I did quite a lot of comedy surrounding ‘trying to be a man’. It was based in my time working in a very straight office environment, and I felt like quite a method actor playing a ‘man in an office’. From that I picked up a few things that I use in my writing. So many times I was getting it all wrong. Like someone would say ‘do you want a pasty from Greggs?’ and I would say ‘No, I’m alright I got salad in my bag’ and they would be like ‘Salad???? In you bag?’. I felt like a swapped one set of rules for another set of rules and in a way. I developed this character, that I didn’t want to be anymore.
Do you and Tracey ever look back at the documentary and think about how much of your life you exposed?
We did expose a lot of ourselves, there is a lot of flesh all over the place. It happened a while ago now. When we were thinking of coming up with an ending, we were thinking of maybe adding some contemporary footage and we couldn’t do it. We felt it would be quite vein if we added stuff of us from now. I don’t really care as much about how I looked 15 years ago, whereas if I was filming myself now, I would be more self-conscious.
Was this a joint effort?
No… Tracey didn’t watch it until it was made. She’d been saying to me, get on with it. Stop talking about it. When I did it, we had a conversation and we both agreed we wouldn’t be too fussy about individual shots, about how we looked or whatever. In the edit suite, going through the footage. I wasn’t particularly proud of things I’ve said or did. But there is a distance too, it’s almost like not me. I was able to be quite objective.
How much footage did you have to sift through?
I originally thought I had loads. I had this box with lots of tapes that I hadn’t labelled. Then when it came time to start looking at what I recorded, I discovered that some of them where completely irrelevant, so the actual usable footage wasn’t as much as I would have liked. That’s partly because of the style of the documentary, filming me talking about things after they happened. I never picked up my camera took into the clinic with me, there is no interview with a doctor or any surgical procedures, it’s not that kind of film. It’s very much a film about me and Tracey, being intimate in a small space, talking about things that have happened.
Every single bit of footage that doesn’t have me talking, we used. You need lots of space in the film, you need space for the voiceover. The editor, Rachel Meyrick, was very skilled in finding the space and then finding the story. It seems like it’s a simple thing to tell your own story, but really it’s not.
The film luckily avoids the sensationalistic element; the whole ‘A pregnant man’ tag line.
Well its different if it’s me telling the story, rather than someone else as well as loads of time has passed since filming stopped. Also, as I mentioned earlier I’m not sure I would use the description man, anymore. All of us change all the time, our bodies are constantly changing. There are some changes that we think are big deals, like… change of gender, but actually is it? Isn’t it just a change of name or pronoun? And to me that’s what the film is about: us changing over time, Tracey’s body changing over time as much my body changing over time.
There was a point that I thought I wasn’t going to make the documentary. Just after our baby was born. I remember thinking, that I didn’t want to make this story public, it’s too private. And I reflect back to that period and I think it’s because of shame. I was ashamed about myself, ashamed of this way I chose to bring up our child. Then I really had to think, why did I feel this shame? What is the shame? There is so no shame.
I am guessing a lot of people like to compartmentalize others into various boxes and the documentary challenges them somewhat?
A brilliant analogy from a young trans person, they said to me: labels and people are like cats and boxes. If you put the box on the floor, that cat will likely to go in it, but if you put the cat in the box its likely to jump straight out. And that’s what that is. Say describing me as a man or a woman or whatever, is cat in the box. Whereas actually leave the box there, there are aspects of me that might more woman or man or there might not be.
We have at this moment in time people thinking the whole world has gone PC mad; everyone saying they are this and they are that. But through history, I think people have always made their own choices and finding their own way. So, no matter how binary society is, there has been individuals that led their lives the way they wanted to.
A Deal with the Universe is out now
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.
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