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“I’m Not a Fly on the Wall, I’m Not Invisible”: Jeanie Finlay on Your Fat Friend

Fact activist Aubrey Gordon holds up a book called Hello Lord...The Devil Wants Me Fat!" in Jeanie Finlay's Your Fat FriendAubrey Gordon in Your Fat Friend

Over the past 15 years, British filmmaker Jeanie Finlay has earned a reputation for nuanced, sensitive and compelling documentary portraits. Her films have told many unlikely stories: the rise and fall of a reluctant Elvis lookalike in Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, two Scottish hip hop fraudsters in The Great Hip Hop Hoax, a pregnant transgender man in Seahorse. Her third feature film, Sound it Out, told the story of the last record shop in the Northeast of England and its owner, Tom Butchart, a school friend of Finlay’s. The morning after the world premiere of Finlay’s latest film, Your Fat Friend, at Tribeca Festival, Finlay learned of the death of Tom of a suspected heart attack. At the UK premiere in Sheffield just a couple of days later, Finlay introduced the film with an emotional tribute to Tom.

Your Fat Friend focuses on fat activist Aubrey Gordon. While Finlay follows her evolution over several years from anonymous blogger to the host of hit podcast Maintenance Phase, her primary lens is on Gordon’s relationship with each of her long divorced parents, Rusty and Pam. The Sheffield screening, packed out with fans of both Finlay’s and Gordon’s, received a lengthy standing ovation at the Crucible Theatre, and the film went on to win the Sheffield Docfest’s audience award.

Filmmaker Magazine spoke to Finlay about the making of Your Fat Friend, her evolution as a filmmaker, and the ups and downs of the last few days.

Filmmaker: How did you come to Aubrey Gordon as a subject? 

Finlay: I’d originally asked Aubrey to write a voiceover for an essay film. I was just deluding myself that the film wouldn’t be about her, because I like telling big stories through personal narratives. They’re the things that make me very happy and, I think, where my strengths lie as a filmmaker. Then I met Rusty and Pam. Her parents have been separated a long time, 25 years, but they have a pivotal role in their daughter’s life, and it was obvious immediately that they both had very different relationships to the work that Aubrey’s doing, trying to change the world for fat people.

For me, that was like Here’s the emotional driver,” the engine of the film. What does it mean to become visible? She starts off as an anonymous writer working on the internet. No face. She becomes an author and all you see of her is an author photograph. She becomes a podcasting legend. Fifty million downloads, but she’s still just a voice online. What does it mean to be visible in the world, and what does it mean for her parents to see her? The film feels like the last inch towards that process. 

Filmmaker: Absolutely. I wonder though, if she had already been this exceptional podcaster, if you would’ve ever thought of her as your person, because she’s more extroverted than most of your subjects to date. 

Finlay: I was definitely intrigued by the fact that she was anonymous. I’ve worked with some big personalities in the past, but I’m definitely drawn to people who are forming what they wanna be. The thing about Aubrey is she’s always herself. Sometimes the timing’s right on things. I was meant to find her in that moment. I mean, we’re not even close geographically. 

Filmmaker: I teach documentaries and I knew immediately I would be showing the scene where Aubrey’s mother starts to think about some of the ways she behaved in the past (regarding Aubrey’s weight) and reflect on it, because of the presence of the camera. What was that like for you seeing that and including it in the film?

FInlay: You hear my voice intermittently in the film. It’s a practice I started on my third film, Sound it Out. I started to bring my voice in because I realized that the moments that you’re seeing are because of my presence there with the camera. I’m not a fly on the wall, I’m not invisible—this is about a relationship. And the closeness that I have, it’s not just with Aubrey, it’s with all the people in the project. 

We’d driven to Los Angeles to be with Pam. I worked with Alice Powell, the editor, and we wanted to create space so that you feel like the clock’s ticking and Pam is reaching for the moment, in a way that feels really raw and like a new thought. That’s amazing for someone in their seventies—to have the openness and generosity to the filmmaking process, but also as a parent, to say “You know what, maybe I didn’t do this the right way.” That feels massive. I know it’s been very meaningful for Aubrey. My production company’s called Glimmer Films because that is what I’m looking for: the glimmer of the tiny moment. It’s a result of the camera as a catalyst and my questions. It is me holding a camera in that moment and the years of work that’s gone into getting in the room. 

Filmmaker: There’s also the extraordinary scene with the dad and the cake, where he is well meaning in getting her a sugar free cake, but totally misses the point of who she is. I thought you did a really nice job in making sure that you showed how loving the father is and the closeness of their relationship, while at the same time how utterly misguided. I mean, presumably she’s never said she wants sugar-free cake!

Finlay: No one’s asked for sugar free or gluten-free cakes (laughs). Yet he says it over and over. I think he says it eight times.

Filmmaker: That was always gonna be in the film, wasn’t it? What did you think as you were filming it? 

Finlay: We filmed it with two cameras: Mine was on a tripod on Aubrey and Stewart Copeland, an American cameraperson I work with a lot, was following Rusty. You always follow whoever’s radio mic you’ve got. We approach it as, “If the scene is a kite, who’s holding the string?” I could see Aubrey becoming more and more contained, just pissed off and annoyed. Sometimes when you’re filming you feel like you’re watching the film already, and that was definitely one of those [moments], because we were just sort of having this wordless ballet.

Filmmaker: What have you learned from earlier films that informed this process? 

Finlay: I try and push myself on every single film, whether it’s a film I initiate or a film that I’ve been asked to direct [Finlay was commissioned to direct Game of Thrones: The Last Watch], because they shouldn’t feel different. With each film, I try and push stuff visually. I shot a lot more of this film. I got a smaller camera, a C70. I bought some beautiful lenses. I learned more about patience. That’s one of the things that I’m trying to develop. I trusted my instincts much more. There’s the opening sequence of the film. We filmed in a pool, because Aubrey swam lanes as a child. But there was something about seeing her in a swimsuit, seeing her lying down and thinking she looks like a mountain range. And rather than just thinking of that as like a hippy dippy notional thought, it was like, “She’s carved of water—we need to get her in a hot spring.” As each film comes on, my confidence to lean into the thing that I instinctively feel is really right is much easier to do. Because I know it’ll work, I know it’ll be okay. And that footage feels really like the fabric of the film. 

I like creating visual effects that are done in camera. I don’t like doing lots of post production. So, I used a projector to put the death threats and hate she received on the walls of her house. We also built a wall back in Nottingham and I matched her wallpaper [and] paint colors. And I played a lot with projections.  My background’s as an artist and it was always like, “What do I wanna make people feel as you follow,” rather than, “What’s the shot list?” Those hate messages are in her hands, they’re in her head; they’re seeping into the walls. So, how can we try and show that in a way that just doesn’t feel like all those big box docs? “Hey, we’re gonna cut to social media now.” There’s so many of those. It’s much more like, how does that feel like? When someone’s tweeting “Even your parents are disappointed in you,” or “We’re going to find you,” it’s horrible and inhumane.

Filmmaker: It’s a lot of hate and also a lot of love. That screening was extraordinary in terms of  the audience. I’ve never seen a Docfest audience like that. Most people had come from far away, I imagine. How did you find it? 

FInlay: I wasn’t going to be there. My friend died the day after our world premiere in Tribeca—Tom from Sound it Out, who I made a film about in 2011. He was also someone I went to school with, my bones-deep close friend. I came back from Tribeca and sat in a slump engulfed by grief and thought, “I can’t do this. How am I supposed to stand up in front of 600 people at the Crucible Theater and go, ‘Here’s my new film!’

Then I just thought, when I posted about the world premiere [at] Tribeca, he was one of the first people to like it and comment. I thought, “He was really looking forward to the film, and I’m just gonna ask the audience to remember him and take a moment to remember this experience.” Because making films, it’s so emotionally demanding. They take years. I started making this one six years ago. I made two other features—Seahorse and Game of Thrones: The Last Watch—in the same time period. This is hard-fought work, and part of the process is birthing it into the world. 

Filmmaker: I’m glad you brought it up. I was going to ask because I know it must have been an extraordinary few days of the highest highs and the lowest lows. 

Finlay: It’s been very weird. Also my Criterion Collection dropped last week, and Sound it Out is one of the films on it. I feel a bit out of body. 

Filmmaker: I suppose Sound it Out will now be part of his legacy and will bring him to life for so many people.

Finlay: It’s a total comfort, and that’s why I mentioned him at the introduction. It just felt so present. For me, making a film isn’t about you extract what you need from someone’s life and then you leave. It’s like, this is a contract. It’s a relationship. 

Filmmaker: It was very moving to hear of Aubrey speak with such fondness of you and your friendship. I assume you will remain close friends from here on out.

Finlay:  It’s been, I think, mainly because of the pandemic.

Filmmaker: Tell me a little bit about how the pandemic affected the film.

Finlay: Initially the film was gonna be about Aubrey becoming visible, non-anonymous, stepping out. I would say usually in my filming process, “The camera’s like a contract. We’re nice to each other, but I’m not here for friendship.” I’m usually pretty clear about that, because I don’t want people to feel obliged to tell me things because I’m their friend. That’s [an] important contractual thing for me. But this took so long, partly because I started the other projects and I had to put this one on the back burner. Partly because of the pandemic, we started these weekly Zoom calls, so I knew everything that was happening in real time and could say, “Oh, this sounds good. How are we gonna film it?” And it would either be Aubrey using the cameras that I’d left behind, or working with Portland filmmakers, Lindsay Trapnell or Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher. So, we kept in regular contact and it was really interesting to share our insight into a global phenomenon. We text a lot. There’s a big crossover of time where we’re both awake. We’ve got really similar sets of humor. 

Filmmaker: Do I recall correctly that you got special dispensation to go and continue filming when it was unclear when the pandemic was going to end?

Finlay: Right. I just needed to continue, so I applied to the American Embassy. I got dispensations, went to the country. 

Filmmaker: What’s next for you? 

FinlayI just got a Chicken and Egg award at the beginning of the year and I’m spending some of it on learning how to power lift.  I’m also going to be going to the University of New Mexico where my camera person, Stewart Skylar Copeland, is a professor of visual innovation. So, I’m going to learn loads of new skills. I just set up my own residency. 

I thought there would come a point where I didn’t want to make films anymore, but I just want to do it more. I feel like the more you lean into emotion and the more you lean into creating visuals, the more exciting it is for me. I’m relieved that I still wake up in the morning. I still want to make films. That’s really exciting. 

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