Monday 12 February 2024

Chewing the fat: "Your Fat Friend"

I don't know how she does it, given the British film industry's byzantine financing and distribution models, but the documentarist Jeanie Finlay retains vast reserves of patience, curiosity and empathy. The empathy is wide-ranging at that: so far within this filmography, it's been extended to the stressed proprietor and ragtag clientele of a County Durham record shop (2011's Sound It Out), assorted pranksters and famehounds (2013's The Great Hip Hop Hoax, 2014's Pantomime, 2015's Orion: The Man Who Would Be King) and a trans man giving birth for the first time (2019's Seahorse). Evidently, Finlay is a mighty shrewd judge of character: she picks subjects she senses she'll enjoy spending years following, and whom she's confident we'll enjoy spending at least ninety minutes with. The result of all this interpersonal groundwork has been a run of films that feel like records of real-world friendships, and that sit as distinct from the more transactional end of modern documentary practice, where established brands (feted filmmaker, famous interviewee) are paired by producers to polish some official record. Funnily enough, Finlay's latest Your Fat Friend centres on someone who's almost famous when first we meet her: Aubrey Gordon, the size-26 fat activist who came to online prominence while blogging anonymously under the handle @yrfatfriend and urging her fellow humans to embrace the three-letter F-word as a value-neutral state of being. Finlay caught up with Gordon as the latter underwent a very modern, recognisably haphazard rite of writerly passage, attempting to convert Internet fame into a viable publishing and media career. The peril is that she's doing so at a moment (2016 onwards) where the American political context meant women's bodies were falling subject to renewed scrutiny and public relitigation.

Like Seahorse's progressive figurehead Freddy McConnell, Gordon quickly proves an ideal match for Finlay's sensibility: someone in the process of overcoming whatever shame or anxiety they might once have felt about their physical form, who presents as determined to occupy the space they inhabit with neither fear nor apology, and yet is also vulnerable to backsliding into old patterns of thinking. (A Finlay subject typically has off-days, wobbles, doubts - as do we all, you might say.) It feels crucial that Gordon has a background in social activism: having campaigned on behalf of others, she now strives to make a case - and a better life - for herself. She knows as well as anyone how bound up food, diets and the swelling wellness industry are with corporate capitalism, ever-keen to set us to consuming or not consuming, and to pay through the nose either way. But Finlay is just as interested in who Gordon might be away from the blog and the keyboard; the film quietly binds the political with the personal in the hope of fostering a more forceful resistance. Some of this story is thus told first person, in Gordon's own, thoughtful words: upon hearing her hypersensitivity around flying, and airlines' anti-fat seating policies, you may well be persuaded those policies are good for neither the fat nor the thin, nor anyone save the company standing to make a packet by cramming as many paying customers as they can into the same finite space. More subtly revealing, though, are the candid chats Finlay records between Gordon and those in her immediate vicinity: her doting mum Pam, obliged to reflect on her previous devotion to all things Weight Watchers, and her old-school engineer dad Rusty, who may just provide 2024's greatest example of nominative determinism.

Often framed against that most fraught of domestic spaces, the kitchen, these back-and-forths not only speak to the very great trust Finlay continues to build with her subjects, they also demonstrate how it is more than possible to have enjoyed a comparatively stable and loving upbringing and still feel - as Gordon once did, and may still, on those off days - that you are unworthy or too much. They also, I think, serve as a constructive contrast to a parallel online debate, permitting differences of opinion (and even the odd off-colour thought or sentiment) without descending into vicious sniping or doxxing. I sometimes wondered whether - again, like so many of us - Gordon was too online for her own good: this camera frequently alights on a woman staring at a phone heating up with shows of celebrity solidarity and naked aggression from passing trolls. Yet Finlay equally makes good contextualising use of Gordon's leafy part of Portland, a city several seasons of cable sitcom have already established as a refuge for refuseniks and free thinkers. Big, meaty, frankly super-fat themes - the body, the self, and their relationship to an insecure world - are here chewed over with the breeziness of an old pals' picnic in the park. (It feels unimprovable that Gordon's progress should draw towards a conclusion with the arrival of cake, imperfectly finished - the frosting's not gluten-free - yet offered with love.) As elsewhere, Finlay both opens up a new front of conversation and reasserts the power of film to gently recalibrate viewer perspectives, inviting us to change our mind fully, reconsider our words and actions or simply think twice - as any good and true friend might.

Your Fat Friend is now touring selected cinemas - details here - and is also available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema. 

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