“It Reminded Me How Fragile and Beautiful It All Is”
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Director Lucy Cohen tells Laura Swinton about the trust and the truth behind her raw documentary on parenthood for Water Wipes
“I think people can understand that without the vulnerability you can’t see the strength.”
A mother tussles with her decision to return to work and a new father is beset with anxiety. A couple worry over their sick twins, haunted by their brush with death shortly after birth. The cast of real parents in a new documentary project from Pulse Films director Lucy Cohen and agency The Brooklyn Brothers for Water Wipes are both shocking and reassuring in their honesty.
The unguardedness is a testament to the Bafta-nominated directors skill and open approach – she shot in a tiny crew of three people, made herself available to the parents to answer questions and let everyone involved see the work before it was released. But it’s also symptomatic of the people who answered the call put out on parenting forums and through community groups. They all believed in the core premise of the #ThisIsParenthood project – that at a lonely and uncertain time, new parents can benefit from seeing other people going through similar emotional journeys.
“We were looking for people who are emotionally open, who actually understood and bought into the ethos of the campaign and felt like honesty was needed because they were also the audience for the campaign too,” explains Lucy.
As the mother of a one-year-old son, director Lucy got the raw emotions, the anxieties and uncertainties and the unexpected practical challenges that new parents face. She, just like her subjects, bought into the brief from The Brookyln Brothers – and between the poo and vomit had also used her fair share of Water Wipes.
That shared experience allowed Lucy to approach the project with a sense of shared empathy. “With anything that I do, I don’t make things personal in terms of making things about me… but I do mine my experiences and my thoughts,” she explains.
From the outset, the agency and client had a deep trust in Lucy’s ability – in order to really connect with core emotional truths, she’d need to be open and listening and responsive to the stories she found. A more prescriptive approach could have ended up with faux insights and insincere narratives thrust upon the parents, distorting the end campaign.
That openness extended to casting. In collaboration with casting director Kharmel Cochrane, they reached out across any platform they could to appeal to parents to put themselves forward. There was no prescriptive list of ‘types’ of parents or boxes to tick, though the end cast is a diverse and multifaceted group. The only more structured element was to include a family from China and one from the US, in order to capture a global feeling, localised insights and a sense of true universality.
For the central 16 minute documentary, each family was shot over two days. On the first day, the crew would arrive before the family was up, in order to capture the morning routine. Lucy insists on capturing events for real rather than staging them, so she wanted to make sure she got the parents in their bleary-eyed truth. She also avoided giving them topics or questions to prepare or over-interviewing them ahead of the shoot in order to capture real emotional responses.
In order to be as unobtrusive as possible, she brought only two other crew members. A fan of the observational approach, Lucy had a strict distinction between filming the families in action and interviewing them. Her reasoning is that it can make for problems in the edit – if you start chucking in the odd question as the dad is making breakfast, before you know it, all of the footage is full of conversation, giving fewer options.
As well as juggling a whole lot of input – 77 hours of footage and contributions from 86 parents – it’s a campaign that also has a whole lot of output. There’s the central 16 minute documentary, as well as 13 short films and 36 Instagram story films that focus on different aspects of parenthood. The edit for the central film was fairly straightforward as that longer format is Lucy’s bread and butter, though the ‘fiddly’ process of stitching together the shorts involved a lot of planning and juggling. The campaign is also running across eight countries and there’s an OOH element that runs across prominent stations in the UK and also a hero placement in Times Square.
Unusually, #ThisIsParenthood is the project that The Brooklyn Brothers pitched to the WaterWipes team in order to win the business. Founding partner Jackie Stevenson reveals that nugget as I leave the building.
That trust and belief has driven a project that has a surprising emotional resonance – and that counts doubly so for the director. Looking back on the journey that, for Lucy, started in October last year it’s striking that the project has had a profound impact on her own understanding of parenthood.
“Inevitably every project takes up more time and headspace than you anticipate. I felt like I was living one of the films myself in terms of juggling my son and working at the same time,” she recalls. “I found it reassuring talking to everyone and making the films. I felt like almost, not necessarily more relaxed, but I think that there is a reassurance in solidarity. No matter what you’re doing it’s ok. It reminded me, watching everyone else from the outside, how fragile and beautiful it all is.
“I could get bogged down in ‘oh why’s his poo a bit yellow’, I could get swamped by all of that stuff... but it helped me to take a step back and realise how precious this was and how perfectly imperfect the whole experience is.”