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Testimonial: Kate McLarnon

Kate McLarnon’s and Sky Neal’s documentary Even When I Fall launches its crowdfunder for the final shoot and edit today, International Women’s Day 2016.

I found out I was pregnant the day before I set off for an ethnography shoot in New York with my filmmaking family Postcode Films. It was a surprise – a good one – but unexpected. I flew reeling into an intense week shooting one-man-band style in locations all over the city, low-budget-lugging gear all over the crowded subway. I often had a kind and caring colleague with me who was largely invisible under all the stuff he tried to carry, so I wasn’t overburdened, but there is a limit to how much kit two arms and gritted teeth can carry. I was often alone with the group of people I was filming, and though they knew I was pregnant, and certainly meant well, they were distracted by their project (the subject of our doc) and I was often left holding the tripod (and the foetus, and the rest) so to speak.

I felt deep bone tired, snapped at my companions and once cried into a slice of congealed pizza, leftover after a dinner I didn’t feel able to drag myself out to. I got the shoot done, and felt I had achieved – but it wasn’t the same triumph over my limitations at which I might usually feel satisfaction. I had the unfamiliar experience of not wanting to push my body hard, with the conviction in hand that it would just catch up with my will, like a Popeye shadow. I used to go about the physical side of the job with a bit of a reckless, hardy head-case charge, but now my body was bending to house the softest thing imaginable.

A couple more mid-pregnancy big-bellied shoots went similarly – carrying more than I could, stressing more than I should, having to briefly leave the camera running and dash off to stick my head out the window and stop myself fainting or puking on the kit. I know it’s not so full on for everyone – but everyone’s experience of pregnancy (and motherhood, and giving birth) is different. Since the bloody awful 52 hours of labour (hippies: orgasmic births may be what nature intended but it’s not always possible in overcrowded, understaffed hospitals, with less than bothered midwives and uncooperative babies with massive heads) I suffered internal injuries, which mean it won’t be advisable to do heavy lifting, ever (or sit-ups apparently, which is the only up side). In short, I have had to rethink my career, to learn how to be less strong, to ask for help but not expect it will be on hand, and to be less selfishly faux-immortal than before. And it has really brought home the (obvious of course) frailty of working a physical job. I’m not meaning to harp on the negative here – I am lucky in a million ways and have a bombshell baby I love with The Big Love – but I wanted to write about some of the challenges I’ve faced, as I’m sure there will be others out there facing them.

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The other big one (apart from a baby who didn’t inherit our love of sleep) for me has been mental health – and this is the part we don’t chat on about publicly all that much, do we? Delayed postnatal depression brain-slammed me on an anvil of anxiety, literally stopping me in my tracks, stealing my days and all my normal thoughts. I’ve got them back now – thanks to great support from my GP, health visitor, councellor and my partner, friends and father. I was lucky – I recognised quickly that I wasn’t just ‘worried’ or ‘down’ within normal bounds because of a similar brief spell a few years earlier. After a traumatic event and subsequent meltdown I learnt – too slowly that time – how you ask for help when you have ‘lost the plot’ just a bit.

When you lose the orientation of your own mind, and your sense of autonomy, you can’t ignore it like an aching back. You have to address it – and in some ways it has to be addressed before everything else, aside of course from the immediate needs of your baby. You are, quite likely, their most immediate need anyway. But none of that should have to mean that everything else in your life falls apart while you patch up your cracking brain box.

And in this regard I thank the stars for my choice of colleagues (and choice it was: I feel strongly about to trying work with people I admire, respect, like and who share key values with me), because it’s only with their support and understanding that I have kept going with work at all. Postcode Films are as good folks as you are likely to find making films or anything else (and we must have synced systems too as three quarters of us are all off breeding as I write) but here I’ll focus on Sky – co-director on Even When I Fall.

We’ve been on the journey – often steeply up-hill – of making our first feature documentary for the last five years, and I remember about two years in half-jokingly saying to her: we better hurry up and get this bloody film finished before I have a baby or something. We failed in that respect, not for want of trying, and have been through the whole range of experiences during its making – births, deaths, divorces and debts. However we are still going, and if it wasn’t for Sky’s understanding and support I probably would have given up somewhere along the way; maybe she feels the same. I am sure that her experience as a mother – of a remarkable and unique young lady, now 19 – has informed her treatment of me and her understanding of the respect with which you have to treat peoples ‘personal’ life, and the challenges it throws at them. And I understand now in a new way what she has been going through for all that time – the splitting or shifting of time and attention, money and focus that is necessitated by working as a mother, and the heartache and strain it can bring.

Of course challenge is not all that parenthood gives you – there are many lessons as well as love. Among others flexibility, adaptability is certainly one of the skills you have to hone – indispensible in creating a documentary film which seems eerily cursed against all of your efforts to finish it. Sky’s daughter joined us for a shoot in Nepal once – earning Sky a fine from a headteacher (when any fool could tell that what she learnt on that shoot exceeded anything she would have totted up on the same days at school). Not only do I think she brought personal treasures home from that trip – in character, knowledge and experience – but she brought us all her own special brand of humanity, building relationships with the young trafficking survivors we were shooting with a breezing ease we relative oldies couldn’t equal. Cultural exchange from across the world is a part of our subject – as the young survivors are inspired to form Nepal’s first circus and turn a painful, shamed profession to a proud art – and Sky’s daughter exemplified then and there how positive exchange flows so naturally, especially between the young.

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But there were moments too when Sky’s maternal mind was just what was needed. When you are making a documentary, especially with vulnerable people, there is a certain duty of care in that relationship that shouldn’t be neglected. The young people we started filming five years ago are becoming mothers themselves now – sometimes in very difficult circumstances – and there is probably an extra mile of empathy and understanding a mother can bring to stretches of time lived together on a shoot. On a trip to Australia with the group, the recent 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck in Nepal and they were forced to watch aghast as the destruction of their city unfolded on the news. No one could get through to find out if loved ones were dead or alive, including a new mother who had no word to hear if her baby was safe. Any parents reading will feel that one in the throat. Sky sat with this lady, understandably in tears, and taught her to use a breast pump for the first time. In moments like those – thank Christ the filmmaker was a mother.

I think Even When I Fall looks at the theme of motherhood in a unique way – I’ll leave Sky to explain more in her post – and I hope it can go some way to exploring and explaining the plight of mothers and children in trafficking-prone communities, and exploding simplified sketches: of vilified victims and stigmatised survivors. We don’t propose we have the answers to the problems of poverty and entrenched trades, corruption, but we aim to shed some light on the complex spread of its poisons into family life.

The path my career will take is uncertain from here. My team are understanding about my continuing on Even When I Fall with a reduced role for the time being, and I have a lot of understanding and patience from other colleagues, especially around my physical limitations. I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself. In the past I could, like many people in creative industries, be a bit of a masochist – working the extra hour or five and never feeling quite like I was allowed to give myself a break – but that has to change. There is another person by my side that I don’t want to soak up the static of a frazzled life. Even though I have been lucky enough to find an amazing childminder who is flexible, can be last minute, and is also in love with her job, it’s still hard to work out how I can compete or continue the job as I did it before. And that’s partly because I don’t want to. I love so much about the work – but I have to find a way to make it fly without pretending not to be a mother.

Money is an issue. Extra work I would have done unpaid in the past to get to the paid parts is a different prospect when you have to pay for every hour of childcare. But it’s not only that which means I’m reluctant to jump back into the hours. We are getting in debt but that’s reversible, but I don’t want to pop an artery and see my baby for two hours a day because you don’t get that time back. It’s important to me to spend more than stretched and fleeting time with her. I don’t condemn anyone else’s choices – especially as someone who had a wonderful child minder when I was young, a wonderful one now for my daughter, and a mother who was a nursery teacher people still remember as their lifelong favourite in their 30s. But it’s the way I feel, and while I’m not 100% sure what my role in filmmaking will be in 10 years’ time, I’ll always be a mother.

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I now realise the concrete difficulties of becoming a parent and maintaining a career were all quite abstract to me before now. Quite characteristically I think I had a bit of a: ‘I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it’ attitude. But now I know, I am filled with naïve wonder at what people have been up against all this time. The word conundrum springs to mind.

As soon as my partner and I had dragged ourselves through it by the skin of our teeth, I felt the desire to help anyone else who needed it get through the early days of babies. People reached out and did that for me, especially in the absence of my own mother who recently died, and I now understand why they didn’t feel it was a burden. I believe there is a natural community in us when it comes to this most human of struggles. And as times moves on I feel a related desire to cheerlead parents who manage feats of film and family and support them when I can. But as a society I do think this support requires an attitude change – both strands of life may necessarily take time and energy from the other, but we should aim for that to be minimised wherever possible. Parenthood is not just some frivolous lifestyle choice people selfishly make on the side.

I’m still confused about how I think things should change, or what would work, but I’m a bit of a learn on the job character for better or for worse – so I’ll be back with some ideas when I get them gestated! I do know that everyone has their own version of being a good parent and of the good life. There should surely be less noise and less pressure from inside and from all angles, less rushing, less straining and more patience. As an industry and as a society I hope we can find ever better ways to support the little tykes by supporting family life.

2018-11-05T16:42:47+01:00March, 2016|Production Stories, The Long Read|