Raising expectations

Jason Barker on filming his attempts to have a child in A Deal With The Universe

by Jennie Kermode

Testing times in A Deal With The Universe
Testing times in A Deal With The Universe

Back in the early years of this century, Jason Barker and his partner Tracey began trying for a child. That might seem like an everyday story, and in many ways it is, but the sheer number of obstacles they had to overcome on their journey was something else, with one disappointment after another. Eventually, with Tracey unable to take it any further, Jason decided that - as a trans man - he would just have to do it himself. His film documenting their experiences, A Deal With The Universe, is now getting a cinema release and is having a big impact of audiences and critics alike.

Jason and I first met in 2012, when he was a programmer at BFI Flare and I was part of a panel there on documentary Intersexion. We both agreed that it was good to reconnect for a chat about A Deal With The Universe and why it's important to tell stories about trans people's lives that aren't wholly focused on transition.

Jason's partner Tracey
Jason's partner Tracey

“That was something that I was really keen to do, telling a trans story that wasn’t focused on the point of transition and wasn’t before and after, and particularly to tell a trans story that didn’t try to explain why somebody’s trans," he says. "There were some suggestions from some people I was working with originally on the development that I should explain why I’m trans. I found that impossible! It’s 25 years ago that I transitioned so the idea of explaining anything from 25 years ago, well... I said, you know, I was a goth when I was a teenager and I’m not a goth now – it would be like me trying to explain why I’m not a goth. It just doesn’t make any sense any more.

“I didn’t want to have to fall back on the usual ways that we try and explain ourselves and I also thought this was an opportunity to make my own film, to try and not explain. I obviously had to let the audience know I’m trans. It was actually quite difficult to get a lot of that information that people needed to know to follow the story without saying so. It was part of the reason for trying to make the film really, because I had this story. I was thinking about what we don’t see. We don’t often see happy stories about trans people and we don’t often see trans people who are loved. You know, all these things that you’d see with any other group. Of course we want to see those things but we don’t see them with trans people, we’re just not told them or shown them.

“I suppose I wanted to say something that was positive to send the message that being trans is not actually a terrible thing to be. It’s alright.”

It seems an especially small issue in this film, given some of the other things that he and Tracey have to deal with.

“Yeah. It’s just another thing.”

Did he ever expect, when he was filming it, that it would get a cinema release?

“Oh no, no! I’d have done a much better job if I thought it was going to be in cinemas,” Jason says honestly. “Originally I did have a film in mind but the film I had in mind was a short film that might be shown at LGBT film festivals in a shorts programme. I’ve made short films before. I used a similar way of filming lots of things and then making the story in the edit.

"In the Nineties and the 2000s I feel that a lot of LGBT history is gone. A lot of the things that we did – and I’m talking about trans things in particular, like there was a trans film festival in the year 2000 in London and there were panellists and talks and lots of people coming and it was really brilliant. I don’t know if there’s any documentation of that at all. When I tell younger people who weren’t even born in 2000 about that it seems amazing that, you know, we’ve done things but out history is often not valued greatly or we didn’t think it was anything special at the time but we do do now.

Injecting hormones to stimulate egg production
Injecting hormones to stimulate egg production

“I suppose it was after I started filming lots of events that I was involved with, with a camcorder... I didn’t really have that big a picture in mind...”

Was he wanting to record things so that he could, perhaps, show them to a child one day?

“It was partly that. But I wasn’t really sure where I was going with it. A lot of the footage that I shot was to do with events. I thought that might be what the film would be about. Because at the time, when I was filming, I thought I might never get pregnant so I thought that film might be shelved. I thought it would be the bleakest film I could imagine if it just faded out and we stopped trying at some point.”

After all those years of filming, how did he begin the process of editing down all the footage into what we see on screen?

“Actually there wasn’t that much. The truth is I thought there was a lot because I had a big box of tapes. I would finish a tape and I would not label it properly and I would throw it in this box. Unfortunately, when we came to look at it, we’d lost some stuff because DV tapes start to degrade after a while – not anything vital to life but some stuff was lost.

“When we came to edit we made the decision not to have other people in the film partly because of the big hassle of having to find people and ask their permission, which is always trouble because people’s lives move on, but also because the film started to become such an intimate film about Tracey and I that if you bring in anyone else they become this kind of significant figure and we want to say more about who is this person? Who is this friend? So we lost a lot of it through that, but mostly I hadn’t actually shot as much as I thought. I tended to put the camera on after things had happened, not while, so I didn’t film anything, for instance, in the clinic or in the hospital so there were some limitations in that way, but I also knew that we did have some good stuff.

“The producer and I watched everything through and we thought yeah. There’s enough... One of the things that the editor, Rachel, and I used to say during the editing was 'Well, it is what it is.' There was no point, really, in talking about what we wished we had... You can wish for all that you like, it’s not going to change. What we really lacked in the editing process were shots without me talking all over them. When you’re dropping in voiceover you need these empty shots, things where you can be more reflective, and there wasn’t a lot of that. So I suppose I wish I’d recorded a bit more of that kind of thing, but although I was thinking about a potential film I wasn’t really thinking ‘Oh, I might need a cut-away here,’ or ‘I’ll just film myself looking out the window.’ It would have been a different sort of film, I think.”

The fact that it is such an intimate film feels refreshing in the circumstances. A lot of public discourse around fertility issues, pregnancy and parenting seems to forget that there are human beings involved and this film lets us see that again.

The happy couple: Tracey and Jason
The happy couple: Tracey and Jason

“I think that’s always the case with people and that’s the power of film, isn’t it? Film introduces you to people in that intimate way. We’ve all had that experience where we’ve maybe had a certain idea about a certain type of person and then we meet somebody and our mind completely changes because suddenly we have this real live person and we can’t apply the same prejudices to them.

“I’ve had some really good feedback about the film but particularly what some straight audience members have said. I remember a woman in Galway saying, ‘I came because I thought, oh, what’s this about? A pregnant man.’ And she said: ‘I’m watching the film and I’ve never wanted a couple to have a baby so much.’ She said: ‘I forgot all about who was what and I’m just really willing you on.’

“Some other people have said that: it becomes irrelevant whether I’m a trans man or this or that – that’s not the point.”

Did he meet with the same kind of support when he eventually got pregnant, or did he have to deal with prejudice then?

“I don’t know if I’m incredibly lucky," he says, "but I do feel incredibly strongly, the more I think about this, that sometimes we’re told certain things by the media, we’re told, ‘This is what people think,’ and then when I meet people in real life I just don’t find that. I find most people are really very nice, very good humoured about things. So when I was pregnant I was very lucky, I guess, in that I had a really boring pregnancy – and I think that’s a really good thing to wish someone who’s pregnant. I was doing an animation course at the time which was lovely, drawing all day, with a load of young students and I told them around that Christmas. I said: ‘I’ve got two things to say. Firstly, I’m trans, and second I’m also pregnant,’ and they were just lovely. It was brilliant.

“I was still working at Flare and felt very supported there. I had great midwives who looked after me and all the medical people. This was nearly nine years ago – nearly ten years ago, I suppose, that I was actually pregnant. I’ve just recently started a project interviewing other guys who are pregnant or have been pregnant, either trans men or transmasculine people and filming them. I’m filming a very heavily pregnant trans guy and I don’t know if I should say this – there wasn’t a lot of drama in the interview. Because he just found all the medical professionals, everyone’s just taking it in their stride. This isn’t anything new to them.”

Coming up: in part two of our interview, Jason talks about the reactions of other trans people to his pregnancy, the way that trying for a child influenced his spirituality, and how he's moving forwards as a filmmaker.

A Deal With The Universe is in UK cinemas from Friday.

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