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In conversation with Jeanie Finlay and Aubrey Gordon

Updated: Feb 11

We were thrilled to sit down with YOUR FAT FRIEND filmmaker Jeanie Finlay and star Aubrey Gordon while on their UK tour and just ahead of the film’s release into UK cinemas. 

Read on for a conversation between Jeanie, Aubrey and our director Melanie Iredale. 

MELANIE: Aubrey, Jeanie. Congratulations on Your Fat Friend and on your UK release. A film we’re so proud to be supporting the film as part of Reclaim The Frame. It’s a beautiful collaboration, I know one formed over a number of years. How did you meet? 

JEANIE: So Aubrey wrote this piece in 2015  - A Request from Your Fat Friend - and I was one of the 30,000 people that read it. I’d been researching, developing. I knew I wanted to make a film about fatness, but wasn't quite sure what form it was going to take. And so when I read Aubrey's piece [A Request from Your Fat Friend] I really wanted to meet the person that wrote it because it was making the personal, political. It was really well written, but also emotional. Initially, I asked Aubrey to write the voiceover for a film, a more essay film. And then as soon as I met Aubrey, and then I met her family and I saw that Aubrey’s here trying to change the world while her mum and dad are coming to terms with what fatness means. There's a big distance between the two of them and I knew: this is where my film lies. So it was like, hey, you know we were going to do that voiceover thing, how about you are the film? So that's how it happened. And we just kept filming

MELANIE: I’d love to know about the incredible trust that must have been built between you: Aubrey, to tell your story given you were blogging anonymously, and Jeanie to know that you would have a subject who was happy to be on camera by the end.

AUBREY: Yeah. I think I had to leap and trust that I would be okay with it at some point - that someday this would be shown to someone, and I should just be ready for that! You're exactly spot on about the amount of trust and that the foundation for that trust came for me, from watching Jeanie's other films and seeing a number of stories that could have been told in a much more sensationalised way, in a way that held considerably less nuance and held considerably less compassion for its subjects. And it felt like watching the way that she told these stories that, again, could be very splashy, very sensationalised, telling them in small and human ways that felt like there was a softness and a tenderness to them, felt like not only like someone that I'd be willing to be on camera with, but it felt like there was also a through line with my own work, that there's something about holding really tough things with a great deal of tenderness.  So it also just felt like a fit, you know?

MELANIE: Yeah and an intimacy, I would say.

AUBREY: Absolutely.

JEANIE: I'm looking to tell purposefully small, intimate stories. And by that, I don't mean unimportant, I mean unnoticed or something that I haven't seen before. And because I know that the act of filming people is like putting a loud hailer to ideas. And that's the beauty of making independent films.  It means that I can keep the promises I make to the people that I want to tell stories about. So I knew that when I was discussing stuff with Aubrey and her family, that they would not have a big surprise when they saw the finished film. That was really important to me. ‘Fat’ - those three little letters - it's a word and a subject that has so much emotion and so much shame and so many deep feelings for people that I wanted to make a film that was very, very careful, that was really honest and open enough that we could go on a little journey, really. But originally the film was going to be about Aubrey coming out and no longer being anonymous. And then the pandemic hit. I made two other films, Seahorse and Game of Thrones - The Last Watch, and came to start the filming again and we were hit by a global pandemic. But in that time, it's fair to say that your [Aubrey’s] writing took on a different profile.

AUBREY: Yeah, absolutely. Got one book deal, two book deals! So I wrote a couple of books and did a bunch of media, and the work just caught on in a much bigger way than I had anticipated and in a much bigger way than when I was anonymously blogging on a free platform on the internet!

MELANIE: And as well as the film being an intimate character portrayal of yourself, Aubrey, and looking at fatness and bodies and shame, it's also dealing with something very systemic: anti-fat bias. In the years that you've been filming, Jeanie, and you’ve been writing, Aubrey, do you see that getting better or worse? 

AUBREY: I would say I notice it changing its shape more than getting better or getting worse. So, for example, in the early 2000 and late nineties, we had a bunch of fat suit movies like Shallow Hal, like Norbit, like a bunch of these, right? The Nutty Professor, that were all like, look at these fat people who are hilariously prat falling in their fat bodies to make you laugh. Today people see that as gauche, right? They see that as sort of a gauche era of filmmaking and of fat representation. But we also have The Whale winning Oscars, right? So things have changed, certainly. But in that particular case, I would say that's almost an elevation of fat suits and of regressive representation. So yeah, I would say things are changing, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

In terms of hope, I feel like the hope that I take is from fat folks who are pushing back. So I would say folks like the people at the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance in the US folks from Fed Front in Denmark, there are folks around the world doing really incredible work to say, I think it's around 95% of fat people report experiencing anti-fat bias every day. And the top places that they experience it are in the doctor's office and from their families. So we have a really, really long way to go on this front. But seeing the kind of resistance work that's happening around it feels really, really moving and meaningful to me.

JEANIE: One of the things that I've felt hopeful about is people watching the film. We use films as a way of finding words to express something that you might not have heard articulated before.  And the messages that we've got from people saying ‘I hope my kids forgive me for the terrible things I said’. You know, being fat is the number one reason that children are bullied. And I think that there's this idea that bullying is like a big boogeyman over there in the corner. It's an othering, it’s an outside. But what if that cry is coming from inside the house and the bully is actually the parent or the family member commenting? I think the thing that I've started to notice is people around me going ‘oh yeah, it's not okay for me to constantly comment on my child ‘my child's weight what they look like.’ Maybe this is just a state of being rather than I think it would be really good if people could look at their fellow humans not as a problem to be solved and allow people to exist in the present tense in their bodies right now and love them unconditionally for that. 

AUBREY: You know when you're being treated as a fixer upper. I would say it's not uncommon as a fat person to be treated as a project for a thinner friend. Like I'm going to be the one who gets you to the gym, whether or not you already go to the gym.  I'm going to be the person who gets you to eat salads, whether or not you already eat salads. It’s a challenging dynamic to be seen as like a goal to conquer rather than like a person to know, maybe even someone that you're lucky to know right?

MELANIE: This is also a film that is about family - about what we pass on and what we pass down. When we denigrate our own bodies, what is that saying to those around us and that we love?  I’d love to know what Pam and Rusty think of the film, I bet they’re so proud. 

AUBREY: They are both unbelievably proud of it. And will tell every person they meet. My dad could be filling up his car at a gas station. and be like ‘my daughter's in a movie!’ He's just so excited all the time. And I will say it has also started to shape their own body politics in some really interesting ways. My mom does not tolerate diet talk from her friends. She's just like, this is boring. Can we talk about something else? We've been talking about Weight Watchers for 40 years. Could we find another topic?  So I think both of them have just come really far in their own understanding of it. And I think that that pathway was made possible by the making of the film and by their own involvement in it in a way that it just wouldn't have been if it was just me talking to them.

JEANIE: I think filming sometimes is an excuse to have a difficult conversation. And it's a lot easier for me,  I feel like my job sometimes is waiting and then being able to ask a challenging or sometimes the obvious question that is never voiced because of politeness, because of family history. But as a director, my job is to be there and to think, What is the question I really want to know here? What would the audience really want to know? And I think, as demonstrated in the film, it really sends Pam on a little catalyst for further thinking. What were the consequences of my actions? and what agency did I have in that situation? And I think it's incredibly generous of both Pam and Rusty as people in their seventies to be like, ‘Yeah, I'm not sure I got everything right.’ ‘let’s see if we can do things differently.’ That's amazing. It makes me really hopeful that things can be changed and repaired and healed.

AUBREY: And also I think whether you're fat or not, I don't know many adults who would not appreciate a conversation with their parents, where their parents go ‘I'm not sure I hit the mark on everything’, right? I think there are many, many people who would feel really welcoming and sort of healed by those conversations with their parents. And short of that, people are having that kind of response to the film, Right? In the absence of those conversations, this becomes a place where people can see that play out and get some emotional catharsis from watching it happen somewhere else at the very least.

MELANIE: Could we talk about the significance of the scenes in the swimming pool? Aubrey, you talk about swimming for you as an expression of freedom back when you were a child, and it became something that you feared. And Jeanie, I think we are so used to seeing women’s bodies, in bikinis, through a lens that either feels sexualised, fetishised or judged harshly. And that scene is none of those things - it's beautiful.

AUBREY: Well, so I'll tell you what, the pool that is in the film,  Jeanie was like, ‘Good news. We booked a pool.’ ‘We can use it for filming. It's going to be great.’ And I was like, where is it? And she was like, ‘It's the Beaverton Swim Center’, which is absolutely where I practiced and competed when I was a swimmer. She had happened to book the very pool that I use the most, so not only to be in water, but to be in that water in particular felt like really like a full circle sort of moment in a really lovely way.

JEANIE: And then Pam found the archives! So the video you see in the film is Aubrey training as a little lane swimming athlete in that exact pool at the beginning.

AUBREY: It's really fun. It's really fun. Mostly I was so excited to be in a pool, which is a thing that is less easily accessible for me as a fat person, right? Of course, you can go to a pool, anyone can go to a pool, not anyone can go to a pool without being photographed,  laughed at, commented upon, pointed at whatever else. So the social parts of it are what make it difficult for me. So the idea of just having a pool and not having to deal with anybody except Jeanie and Stewart [Copeland, the Director of Photography] who I know and like felt really, really lovely. And I feel like that's what those shots ended up capturing is just me feeling really happy and at home in the water.

JEANIE: And as we were filming in the pool, Aubrey was reclining in the water. I was looking at her body, caught by the light and I thought Aubrey’s a mountain range. She looks like the Pacific Northwest, you know, the Pacific Northwest and Portland and Oregon are characters in the film really, because they’re what Aubrey used to look at when she was driving around and writing. So I knew we needed to find an outdoor pool to film her, and we went to Breitenbush Hot Springs, which is a sort of Oregon landmark.

I just wanted to film Aubrey’s body with tenderness and for it to look magnificent and to take up space on screen. 

MELANIE: I would just love to finish by hearing from you both about the incredible reaction that you've had to the film so far. I know how much thought that you've put into ensuring that screenings are as accessible and as inclusive as possible, and that fat audiences feel welcome and would just love to hear a bit about the response.

JEANIE: It’s been wild hasn’t it?

AUBREY: Yeah, it's been absolutely wild!

JEANIE: I think people have found themselves on screen, but also each other in community and that's why we're doing the cinema tour. We've asked cinemas to publish seat sizing  Picturehouse have overhauled their accessibility pages to now include seat sizing for all of their cinemas, all of the time.

It’s a small change, but it feels like change is possible if you ask for it in the right way: this is really important to us. I thought I'd made this small film for myself. My daughter was 13 when we started filming. She's now 19, and I wanted the film I could have seen when I was a teenager. And so to win audience awards and to get standing ovations at screenings has just been just like, Oh wow! I thought I'd made this for Aubrey and for myself. Filmmaking can sometimes be scratching a selfish itch. I wanted to get this out of my system, I wanted to interrogate what fat meant to me. So for it to connect with other people is just the best feeling ever. It's amazing.

AUBREY: I mean, I think there are lots and lots and lots of places to talk about how much you hate your body and how much you want to change it. And there are very, very few that are like, What if it's fine? What if you just look the way you look? And I think it's easy to underestimate how powerful that feels to people who have just been bombarded with messages all the time. For many of us, for our whole lives  about how we ought to look  and how we don’t look, often starting with our parents, our grandparents  or folks in our family, right? ‘It's a shame you got my jawline’ or what have you, right? And I think the thing that has made the biggest impression to me has been the incredible sort of depth of response that folks have to seeing the film. The number of people who are like, ‘I started crying in the first 10 minutes’ ‘and I thought it would stop, but it didn’t.’ I was like, Okay! I feel like folks are having really, really, really strong reactions to it. And I think again, I think there's something really, really healing and meaningful, particularly for fat folks to see someone on screen go ‘I don't think that I did right by you.’ right? Which is a thing that 's inherent in the unsatisfying nature of social change,  is that you work and work and work to change things And at the end of all that, nobody goes,  ‘Hey, I'm sorry I put you through all of that.’ Right? So to see that play out on camera I think is incredibly meaningful to me, and it really seems to land for folks.

MELANIE: It really does. Congratulations and all the best for the tour. And thank you so much for speaking with us, Jeanie and Aubrey.

JEANIE: Thanks Melanie. We're so happy to be working with Reclaim The Frame. We love you guys. 

YOUR FAT FRIEND is in UK cinemas from 09 February


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