Writer and academic Devorah Baum and filmmaker Josh Appignanesi are co-directors and protagonists of the feature documentary The New Man, a film they made about the process of becoming parents together. Their friend, the author Hisham Matar, plays a key role in the film. Here, they discuss the merits of the institution of marriage, the thin line dividing art and reality, and the performative aspect of relationships.

 

Hisham Matar:

When you got married what did you think you were doing?

Devorah Baum:

I thought I was making my parents happy.

Josh Appignanesi:

I thought I was making Devorah happy.

(All laugh)

Devorah:

I also like rites of passage that require communal recognition. I like ceremonies of transition. I like religion.

Josh:

I thought of the rite as something I had to put myself through. Partly by finding out how much I could cope with hating you while organising it.

Devorah:

I hated you too just before our wedding. So much!

Hisham:

So it was a rite of passage in what sense?

Josh:

For me it was because I found myself doing something I never imagined myself doing: marriage. I always knew marriage doesn’t work – just look at my parents.

Devorah:

I think I could have only married someone who didn’t want to marry me. I pursued a very traditional wedding in a white dress – but had my future husband believed in ceremonies like that, it might have felt like I was walking into a trap that history had laid down for me. Because it’s clearly an ambivalent thing deciding ‘this person for the rest of my days’. Especially when you hate that person as much as I hated Josh.

Both laugh.

Hisham:

I don’t totally believe you both when you say ‘we hated each other’.

Devorah:

During the weeks before our wedding when he was being truly awful, I thought I’d chosen the worst person to marry – which is why it’s so interesting that I still wanted to marry him.

Josh:

I felt totally alienated from her until the moment when the ritual of getting married under the canopy was over. After that in the blink of an eye it was the best day of my life and she was the greatest person in the world and I was free. I think I needed to literally tie the knot to break out of my cynicism.

Devorah:

The biblical command to marry is expressed in terms of leaving your parents’ house and cleaving to your spouse. And the psychodrama of marriage seems very bound up with that confusion about where and to whom one belongs when one makes that transition. Somehow the person you choose has the job of taking you out of your comfort zone, which puts them, structurally, in constant competition with your family, no matter how much they may in fact like your family. So while at first you think you’re going to just repeat your own family set-up with someone new, soon you realise you’re going to have to reinvent this institution – marriage – between yourselves. It’s what makes tradition potentially so creative.

Hisham:

It’s clear you’re both very interested in it.

Josh:

Well we had a very fractious relationship. We split up several times.

Hisham:

I don’t think that’s unusual. What I do think is unusual is that it’s become a subject for you. Why do you think that for you marriage is something to think about, talk about and make work about?

Devorah:

Someone wise once told me that so long as you fear a relationship is going to end, you know you’re still in it. So I do see it as a sign of health that I’m constantly imagining our marriage can’t last. But it’s also a genuine fear of mine – partly because I come from a family that doesn’t do it like this. There were no big arguments between my parents in the house I grew up in. I’ve yet to see a crack in my parents’ marriage. And since there is divorce on Josh’s side, I guess I fear that might be the model of marriage we wind up resembling.

Hisham:

But knowing you both, I think your interest in this is not just sparked by a concern about your different family backgrounds, I sense it’s also a source of vigour for you. Am I wrong?

Devorah:

Well one of the obvious fears in a long relationship is that the love may remain but the attraction will dissipate. At home you can’t get up every day and decide to be sexy.

Josh:

(Shrugs) I’ve never understood why not.

Devorah:

Josh sees me at my least made-up, my least attractive, and yet he’s the one who needs to feel attracted to me. And we’re both quite slovenly people. So one thing couples often do is have ‘date nights’ when they go out into the world together. And in that outing the eye of the world acts as a third character in their relationship: a character that’s intrinsic to the sexuality of their relationship. So yes, the element of exhibitionism can probably add a kind of interest.

Josh:

So if we make a film of ourselves, or invite people over and talk about how awful our relationship is, we make it sound like an ongoing romantic comedy . . . perhaps we make ourselves feel like actors involved in the plot of choosing each other rather than being just stuck with each other.

Hisham:

There’s a moment in the film when you’re sitting on the bench, by the river, it’s a beautiful day and there’s an unmanned camera behind you, recording you. And you’re having an argument, and you’re also performing having an argument. I was thinking about that in connection with this idea that one of the things that happens in a marriage is that you have to learn to perform your own marriage. But I got the impression, Devorah, that you were performing it reluctantly.

Josh:

In the film Devorah plays the role of the reluctant, long-suffering wife, and she actually was that person too. The arguments between us in the film were necessarily re-enacted because if you bring out a camera during an argument it’s an escalation, it’s no longer the same argument. But they were arguments we’d just had, almost verbatim. I had to drag her into it, she resisted it, but her resistance also became part of it.

Devorah:

I was so irritated at what he was making me do that I was angry enough to be perfectly capable of having our arguments again.

Josh:

I see filmmaking as an act of love: slightly controlling, ever so slightly sadistic, but fun!

Devorah:

While I, patronisingly, secretly thought we were only playing at making a film, not really making one. But also, at some level, in case we were actually making one, I was adamant about co-directing it at every stage so that I could determine what sort of film it would be.

Hisham:

What did you want it to be?

Devorah:

I wanted to make sure that certain sides of me, of Josh, of our marriage, and of our pregnancy, wouldn’t be shared. And we didn’t share those things. I wanted what we did share to speak to a more universal condition, not the specifics of our case.

Josh:

All this was happening while Devorah was pregnant. And that’s what I thought I was playing along with – my imminent fatherhood being a genuine ambivalence on my part that I could only cope with by reimagining it as a film I could make. To be the author of it somehow.

Devorah:

And the film does make an analogy between finding oneself unable to make a baby, and unable to make a film. It shows how crisis-inducing it is to have either of those drives to create frustrated. Of course, the film plays for laughs the obvious disjunct between making an actual life and making some weird sort of home movie. But actually the comparison is not without seriousness. Because people generally want to be generative, in whatever way they choose, and to think of yourself as the kind of person who can’t generate anything, for whatever reason, is true misery.

Hisham:

And the two productions happened at the same time . . .

Josh:

Yes, the film was around pregnancy, and just as she’d found it hard to get pregnant, I’d found it hard to get a film off the ground. So, too, when we found out the pregnancy had gone wrong, I feared for the continuation of the film as well.

Hisham:

I remember in Spain you and I were together when you heard the news from London that something might be seriously wrong with the pregnancy, which is in the film. And your first reaction was to pick up your camera and start filming . . . children, families . . .

Josh:

There is a part of my head that coldly sees all experience as material. Maybe it’s a survival tactic to put a frame around things, or to participate in them at all, or to get some distance from them over and above the turmoil of life. I’m not always making something, but when I am, no matter what else happens, there’s a part of me that’s at work.

Hisham:

That response reminds me of the parable by Kafka about the leopards who break into the temple. The first time they’re horrified, but since the leopards keep breaking in the priests decide to make that disruption a part of the ceremony. Because to me it seems there’s something performative not only about making a film, but in the way you both speak, for example, about hating each other.

Devorah:

Yeah, you’re right. I think we’ve dealt with a lot by making what goes wrong ‘part of the ceremony’ . . . we made what went wrong in the pregnancy part of the film, and we make the frictions in our relationship part of the pleasure of the relationship. And it’s done ceremoniously because often we only talk about these things when someone else is there. I’ve often noticed couples use the presence of others to enact some sort of surreptitious reconciliation work with each other. But with the film it was complicated. When he returned from Spain Josh knew, given what we’d learned was pending, that he couldn’t mention filming again. And I remember at a certain point realising that Josh was sad not only because of the loss of one of our children – possibly both – but because of the loss of his film. And realising that it was up to me to decide whether or not I’d force him to endure that loss. And because I knew the pain of the loss I was undergoing, I sensed what the prospect of that loss was for him too, though it took me quite a long time before I said we could start filming again. And it was when I made that decision that I stopped treating the film like this annoying thing, because I understood suddenly why it mattered existentially, for him as an artist and as a man. Though for me too, it became a kind of sense-making coping mechanism.

Josh:

The only reason it might seem strange to people that we continued filming is because that happens rarely in film. In literature and memoir we’re more than used to it – people frequently use their own lives for the work they’re making.

Hisham:

Nonetheless for me it remains an interesting question when a writer or filmmaker chooses to make their own life the subject of their work. And in your case, because it’s a documentary, the intention is for it to be your life as it happens.

Josh:

It was partly asserting the right to life – this life – and the right to represent it. There’s a deep reticence or sense of shame in this country around representing on screen our class of people, the so-called liberal or metropolitan elites, which I find disingenuous. Which doesn’t mean our film doesn’t poke fun at our social class – it does – but it also shows the love we have for our friends and family. And why not? I want to be able to unashamedly say I love these people, in these harsh times more than ever. And by the end of the film we do see, in any case, the universal ‘rites of passage’: marriage, birth, death – the great levellers.

Hisham:

So how has making the film changed your ideas about marriage and about making work?

Devorah:

We did have a lot of anxiety early on about being not serious enough subjects for cinema, but since making the film I’ve concluded: ‘let the work speak for itself – if it reaches people great, if not, fine.’ And by the end of the process I felt the film vindicated itself, partly because of something it’s also about: the urge to create. So, even if we don’t look like serious subjects, we still have a serious desire to create – and that’s to some extent a message that our film could only convey by being in other ways not serious. While in terms of my relationship, I think I’ve learned to respect Josh more. I’ve learned now that when he says he’s up to something, he probably is.

Josh:

Am I? If you say so.

Hisham:

It’s interesting that Devorah’s wanting to have children and having children has convinced you of the worth of having children, and the same has occurred in reverse for Devorah regarding your wish to make a film.

Josh:

That, for us, is the greatest irony. And actually now we have to go and collect our kids.

 

The New Man is available on demand from iTunes and Amazon. For more about the film, and to rent or purchase a copy, visit thenewmanmovie.com/shop

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