By Leah Martindale, Third Year, Film & TV
The documentary, directed by its own subject, Jason Barker, features a likeable, down-to-earth couple who go on an emotional roller coaster on their way to a near-miracle.
A Deal with the Universe is a film that is entirely ordinary, about the most painstakingly ordinary act in the world, under extraordinary circumstances. The film is director, and subject, Jason Barker’s debut feature documentary, and follows the trials and tribulations surrounding himself and his partner trying to conceive a child. This is complicated somewhat, as Jason is trans.
The film is entirely composed of home recorded videos, with so little intention to craft something from them the tapes were thrown haphazardly and unlabelled into a box, much to editor Rachel Meyrick’s dismay. The film’s opening premise is following Tracey trying to conceive, but after a devastating setback asserts with crystal clarity Tracey’s unsuitability for the role, Jason thought ‘well actually, what I do have - ovaries!’. Jason comes off of testosterone, and embarks on what will be a decade long journey in heartbreak, conception and misconceptions, and caravans.
The screening I attended was hosted by the BFI, and featured a Q&A with Barker and Meyrick themselves. ‘Look away if you don’t want a spoiler!’ Barker shouted before the showing, covering his child’s face with pamphlets. From his first jaunty stroll onstage it was clear Barker was an overwhelmingly likeable character. What was less clear upon first venturing into the film was the emotional and mental toll the subject manner would have, in such a delicately balanced bittersweet swansong.
The film runs at 90 minutes, with approximately five of those spanning the successful pregnancy. More time is spent detailing the love life of two pigeons on the couple’s London balcony than the final successful insemination, after over 60 attempts. The film features recognisably British hilarities, like the weird old man on a tractor who inexplicably owns the caravan site the couple frequent, dotted amongst the entirely foreign world of traversing conception, gender, and an incomparable love all in one.
The film is peppered with tragedy wildly more powerful than I have vocabulary to express. Loss, illness, death, miscarriage, and ignorance lurking in the vestibules of what were once considered friendship. The heartbreak of Tracey and Jason discussing whether or not to name their five week miscarriage (‘Something you’d never name a child, like Wolfgang.’) volleys against the couple’s undying wit and charm. When Jason makes his titular unfruitful but desperately motivated deal with the universe, I cried so much a stranger had to comfort me.
Shot in 4:3 aspect ratio in dubious quality - apparently advertised as ‘broadcast quality’ at the time of video camera purchase, Barker said, to raucous laughter from the audience - the film lacks in expected polished quality what it makes up for in personality, humour, and honesty. Paced perfectly and coloured beautifully, the film is made masterfully and plays out with the same clarity and enjoyment of any documentary.
Great screening and QnA for fantastic documentary A Deal With the Universe - hugely generous and moving insight into very personal LGBT experience with director and editor. @ADWTUfilm pic.twitter.com/pFi6ZWCsFw— Mark Cosgrove (@msc45) April 28, 2019
Barker revealed in the Q&A that he believes ‘trans lives have been represented so badly that it’s all about this idea of before and after’. A Deal with the Universe proves that trans people, parents, ‘grown-ups’, and everyone around us never stops growing. There is a ‘before’ but there cannot be an ‘after’ until that final moment and, if anything, the film teaches us to push until that moment, to kick and scream and drink from streams and find monuments to goddesses and wrap rocks in our hands and hold on right until the end.
With a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score - at the time of writing - the film clearly holds its own. However, in Barker’s own words: ‘It hasn’t really been a global success, it hasn’t set the world on fire, but I’m okay with that.’ Meyrick recalls fondly Tracey watching the final cut, ‘nattering through most of it’, and asking at the end if it wasn’t just a bit boring. Would anyone want to watch it? Barker noted his surprise at young audience members caring about the middle aged suburbia on display.
A DEAL WITH THE UNIVERSE documents Jason Barker's pregnancy journey as a #transdad. Don't miss it tomorrow April 3rd 18:15 @BFI Southbank with a Q&A hosted by @CampbellX. Tickets: https://t.co/3HV2NoGiP7 #transisbeautiful #TransLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/T7k1q2YVCV— Peccadillo Pictures (@peccapics) April 2, 2019
The simple answer for me to the question of the film’s captivating appeal was the couple’s unbelievable normalness. They could be your own parents - and yet, they aren’t. If it were not for sheer tenacity they may not have been anyone’s, and it is this potential loss, this desperate ploy for life and love and longevity, the decade long deal with the universe that glues your eyes to the screen and makes every tragedy a personal affront. A Deal with the Universe is a must-see for anyone who loves love.
A Deal with the Universe is showing at The Cube on Wednesday 15th May.
Featured Image Credit: Sarah Davidmann
Are you in awe of Jason and Tracey and their journey to parenthood?