The New Man: becoming a father

Amy Hardcastle praises The New Man, a documentary which doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects which are still taboo in our society

, 9 November 2016

The documentary The New Man, co-directed by a couple Josh Appignanesi and Devorah Baum, centers around Devorah’s pregnancy and how it influences their life. It features interviews with their friends and family, including (not introduced onscreen) intellectual celebrities like Antony Gormley, John Berger, Zadie Smith and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

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The first few shots signal to the audience what is to come. Birth, love, loss, death… We think of these as experiences we will come across along our journey through this world. Imagine dealing with all four at once. One of the most interesting things about The New Man is that it didn’t begin as a film. There was no corporate meeting, no agenda, just a story: their life that was already happening and Josh decided to film it.

In a society where dealing with infertility, miscarriage and infant loss is still a taboo subject, many people can feel alone. From a very young age, women are socialised to become mothers and it is assumed that not only will they want to have children but that they will have no problem getting pregnant. That’s why strangers think it perfectly acceptable to ask a parent they see at the park: “When are you having another?” The person answering often feels the burden of not bringing up the fertility issues because it makes the other person uncomfortable, when really, the question should never have been asked. There is also the sense of failure that people impose on themselves because they have been brought up with these assumptions and so they feel they are the only ones who can’t do what their body is “supposed” to do.

As Devorah grows life, two lives in fact, in her womb, we start to see the growth of a new man, a new Josh

Although around 2% of all pregnancies in the UK are a result of fertility treatment, it is still a hush-hush topic. Thankfully, there are some online groups such as the Facebook Infant Loss Support Group, several discussion boards on Mumsnet and charities like Saying Goodbye who host tributes for anyone who has suffered a loss. People experiencing these things can come together, get support and talk to others who might be struggling and who understand their pain, but not everyone is aware of them or can access them freely.

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Josh and Devorah’s relationship is tested at every turn of the documentary. After their fifth failed fertility treatment, mourning leads to blame, but we see their long road to finally being able to share the good news only in tiny snippets: with elated squeals in the background we zoom in to Josh’s overwhelmed expression. Almost as though each time they tell someone new, he struggles to take it in yet again.

There’s a really fantastic moment where they discuss what camera can really capture and whether putting themselves on screen is “real life”. Their honesty is refreshing and their art is uninhibited by outside opinions on what their film should look like, but once Josh decides to make the film they remain aware that they are being filmed and you can only wonder how much that shapes their actions.

Luckily, Josh’s candour does not seem affected by the camera as he worries about his place in his growing family, asking friends who are fathers whether they felt usurped by their new arrivals. He struggles to imagine a world where someone will need his wife’s attention more than he does. Devorah’s pregnancy causes his crisis in masculinity but it is also that which resolves it. As Devorah grows life, two lives in fact, in her womb, we start to see the growth of a new man, a new Josh.

The sound of the babies’ heartbeats comes in and out throughout the film, reminding us that no matter how heartbreaking the reality is and how much their mother may want to keep them protected in her womb, time is ticking on

The film is split up into chapters or sections with titles appearing on screen for each one. The second title, ‘Must Find Work’, was very interesting. As we watch the footage of Josh unsuccessfully searching for work, juxtaposed with shots of Devorah’s many projects, we see him itching to do something, almost bouncing off the walls. This couple have been trying for a baby for some time, at least five fertility treatments. This is not an issue of “Whoops we got pregnant and don’t have the money to support a child, I’d better pitch in”. Maybe he is only worrying about the time when Devorah takes her maternity leave but it seems to be about something bigger than that. Josh seems to be feeling the pressure, the internalised stereotype that he must provide for his child, that he must be the breadwinner. We have these rigid gender roles placed upon us from birth and it takes a lot to unlearn and withstand these pressures.

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As well as cathartic conversations with his father, Josh’s decision to turn this life-changing experience into a film, and his next project, eases this desperation and gives him purpose. In addition to his worries about work, he mentions he is feeling in competition with Devorah because now, as she is pregnant and creating life, he is feeling useless. Unfortunately, he realises just how useful he is at the worst time. When he takes a short trip away, Devorah attends a scan, the crucial one that reveals the news about the health of the twins. Miles and miles from his wife and unborn boys, he laments that “she’s there and I’m here”. Shortly after telling his friend he is happy to be away from all the uncertainty, he seems to recognise that he perhaps shouldn’t have gone away on the trip to begin with. He realises himself it was a selfish thing to do and I think it becomes a turning point for him as he really steps up to support Devorah through the rest of the pregnancy.

The sound of the babies’ heartbeats comes in and out throughout the film, reminding us that no matter how heartbreaking the reality is and how much their mother may want to keep them protected in her womb, time is ticking on. It all moves very fast at the end and it was hard not to be emotional. As a viewer, invested in this couple and their unborn twins, I started to to feel uncomfortable, almost like there were things happening that I should no longer be privy to, but that is exactly why you should watch them. We need to not shy away from mothers who need support simply because of our own discomfort. We need to put aside our awkwardness and let people talk about their pain.

It was nice to come full circle and see Devorah give a speech at the end, mirroring the one from the wedding tape that opens the documentary. It was great to hear her toast to both her children and to be reminded of the cyclical nature of time. The world will keep spinning and the seasons will change and Josh and Devorah will celebrate and honour their sons year after year.

The New Man premieres today at the 20th International UK Film Festival and will be in UK cinemas from Friday 18 November.

All images courtesy of Together Films.

Image description:
1. A woman and a man (Devorah and Josh, the filmmakers) are sitting on the bench in the park, facing the camera but looking in the opposite directions. A woman has a white makeshift turban on her head, is wearing a white dress and a long brown cardigan. A man has curly hair, stubble, white top and open grey coat.
2. A woman (Devorah) is standing in what looks like a large art gallery, in front of white neon that reads “MOTHERS”. She’s wearing green top and knitted coat and is looking up as if expecting something to appear there.
3. A man (Josh) is lying on a propped up hospital bed, holding a new born baby on his chest. He is looking into the camera with a happy if a bit puzzled look.

Amy Hardcastle is a feminist mother of one who makes videos about breastfeeding and attachment parenting on YouTube. She's on Instagram and blogs at amywinterwrites.wordpress.com/

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