Monday morning, 10am, front and centre in NFT2 at the BFI Southbank. Jason Barker’s debut feature, A Deal With The Universe, is Flare’s centrepiece screening, hotly anticipated too judging by the three sold out dates, and I was curious to explore the film behind the picture of a pregnant man submerged in a pool à la the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind - minus the baby and the dollar bill.
At the heart of the film is Barker: writer-director, former BFI Flare programmer, a trans man and subject of the film along with his long term partner Tracey. He buys a camera and documents their lives as they’re looking to start a family, but it proves difficult when Tracey initially has trouble conceiving with her own eggs and suffers a breast cancer diagnosis that forces the doctors to effectively induce an early menopause. They move onto Plan B in which Jason halts his hormone therapy and looks to fertilise his own eggs, a journey captured in all its homely realism, saddening reality and eventual satisfaction.
The format of this documentary is relatively simple; it starts with the couple and explores their relationship through the years, allowing us to get to know. We learn of their first trip together, their love for their caravan and their determination to start a family. One thing that struck me is how honest Tracey is with the camera; this is not to say she divulges everything, but rather how much she holds back. Sometimes she doesn’t like to be filmed, feeling “fat” in her dressing gown, and she often disagrees with Jason which can be uncomfortable to witness - as all arguments between couples are - but it all serves to remind you that this is a documentary, and sometimes the things you document aren’t the happiest memories. One could apply a structure to the film in the traditional sense with a first, second and third act, which the editor does well, but I think it might be better to view the entire film as a home movie; a vignette of a couple's life during a time of immense change.
There is an element of discomfort I felt that I can’t quite pin down. One would be blind not to notice how much Jason desperately wants a child of his own, and with every shot of a negative pregnancy test there is a sense of frustration growing, especially when the numbers are released: 57 attempts, many of them IVF that is itself is a difficult and expensive process. At one point Jason laments about fate, an element that explains the title, A Deal With The Universe. It was a superstitious agreement that Barker makes upon hearing his best friend, Brixton Brady, is missing. He promises a trade-off, pregnancy for Brixton’s health. The next day he finds out Brixton has passed away in an accident, and Barker questions whether he is cursed by this universe, doomed to suffer for “wanting too much”. Perhaps my discomfort is not a criticism of neither the film nor the subject, but rather a note on how visceral Barker’s exasperation is, exemplified when he breaks down after multiple attempts of pregnancy, asking “Why not me?”
The good news is that Barker does eventually get pregnant, and surprisingly the actual pregnancy is not covered that much in comparison to the journey. The film cuts to his frolicking in the pool and then to photos of Barker and his son together, rapidly growing up in the snapshots that flicker on screen. The final shot is Jason Barker, happier and healthier than you’ve ever seen him, and free of the curse that he’s convinced has haunted him for a decade.
- Xiao Tang