Director: Katie McNeice
Writer: Katie McNeice
Cast: Fiach Kunz, Pat Shortt, Johanna O’Brien, Rebecca Hickey
Running time: 18mins
Intersex is a general term used for a variety of situations, in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the norms assigned to the binary of “female” or “male” sexes. As of 2016, the United Nations estimated approximately 1.7% of babies around the world were born intersex.
The approach of the medical profession to these situations is – to put it extremely generously – poorly developed, while the rights of intersex people are rarely protected. While the UN repeatedly sanctions countries where children with intersex variations undergo surgical and or medical interventions, as children involved aren’t consenting to these interventions, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) has previously found intersex people “experience fundamental rights violations ranging from discrimination to medical intervention without their consent”.
In 2015, FRA found that at least 21 EU member states conducted medical intervention on children to impose a sex on them at a young age. In 18 of those, parental consent was required, but eight states would simply make do with the consent of “legal representatives”.
Procedures to “correct” intersex traits can cause a raft of permanent conditions later in life, ranging from permanent infertility, to pain, incontinence and mental health issues. On this basis, Ireland is one of the countries which has been sanctioned by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child sanctioned Ireland due to its stance on intersex children. Ireland has no confirmed standard of care for intersex people, and cannot clarify how the State protects bodies of children with an intersex variation.
All of this is information I was unaware of going into Lambing – writer and director Katie McNeice’s hard-hitting short film centring on the turmoil of a young family following the birth of their first child. While Ireland has made major strides in recognising human rights in recent years – historic referendums overturning bans on abortion and gay marriage – this still stands as one of “Ireland’s last taboos”, and so exposing the issue of intersex medical discrimination is something Lambing should take big plaudits for.
The world into which Caoimhe (Johanna O’Brien) and David (Fiach Kunz) are bringing their baby is utterly terrifying. Moments before, we were with them as they happily cooed to each other in a warmly-lit nursery about how good they would be at parenting. But rather than basking in happiness or relief, the seconds following the birth of their child are filled with dread. The attending nurse immediately, wordlessly, whisks the baby away – insisting on seeing a doctor and without consulting either of the shocked parents – with every actor on screen doing an excellent job writing large this sickening shift from happiness to gut-wrenching fear.
This is a deeply upsetting introduction to the realities of the current situation for intersex babies and their families – they are relegated to the role of bystanders, while the medical orthodoxy convenes to determine what is “best” for them. Marooned in this distressing environment, both parents are bombarded with assertions that the doctors are just trying to help, while also being fed many codified threats based on normative language, that if they do not comply something will go wrong. A medical panel will meet in ten days to decide what kind of intervention is best for the child’s development to be “as normal as possible.” In the meantime, parents should avoid telling anyone what is going on, the implication being they will not be accepting of the child – but the reality being that it keeps Caoimhe and David away from any support networks that might contradict the treatment their child is being marched into.
In possibly the most enraging moment of all, when Caoimhe asks what happens if doctors assign her child the ‘wrong gender’, and only realise once they are in their teens, the answer is simply that we’ll just have to hope that doesn’t happen. As far as the doctors let on, though, this is going to happen, one way or another. It is a nightmarish depiction of a cultish attitude, using medicine as a means to conform people rather than help them, executed to chilling effect.
It is difficult to say how close to life this sequence is. Irish medical professionals obviously assert that this kind of work is carried out in as compassionate and consenting manner as possible – with parents usually agreeing with decisions reached, according to testimony in the Irish Examiner. But considering the weight of ideological reinforcement on their side and the commonly recognised fact that doctors around the world have a habit of gaslighting women in their care – however benign that advice might seem, it carries the weight of something far less progressive behind it. That’s without even recognising the future wishes of the person the child will become.
The problem is, very little of this actually features in the film itself. The fact is, most of the things I have just mentioned come from research after the credits rolled – and while the film can take some commendation for at least inspiring that, it arguably does not do enough to represent debates on intersex treatments or human rights for itself.
Indeed, the bulk of the film does not centre on the child, or their mother Caoimhe, who is denied the opportunity to hold her infant’s hand while waiting for some unseen panel to determine if they should be a boy or a girl. Instead, it centres on her partner David. Abandoning his partner and child at a time of great emotional distress, he spirals into emotional turmoil as apparently his father, John, bullied him as a child for being too ‘feminine’. Following this, the film becomes more about the pair’s reconciliation than anything else – while the baby and mother almost feel like an afterthought. As good as Pat Shortt is in those scenes as John, it seems to undermine what we thought was the lead plot. At the same time, while the filmmakers wanted to contrast this birth with a problem birth on John’s farm, this also seems a little superfluous.
All these different angles might have been brought up in a discussion between the parents after the news is broken to them about their child, and the intentions of the doctors. They might have discussed his father’s behaviour, or how it has informed his feelings on his own child now. Working through that now via an argument with his partner, perhaps it might not matter what colour they paint the nursery at all, etc. At the same time, this might have given them more room to emote, to explore conflicting feelings about what they are being told, and more opportunities for us to subsequently side with them.
There is not enough protective pushback to the medical professionals on display to suggest they are anything but terrified their child is ‘not normal’; they do not seem defensive of the infant, even if they are frightened for them. And that really hurts their likeability, which is very important if we are to be carried along with them to want to know more about this issue, or do something about it.
What we can see from the interactions of David and John is that McNeice can write and direct emotionally complex dialogue. In a short format, though, that needs to be more focused; targeted on a core element that it can help nail, instead of trying to branch off and tumbling down too many rabbit holes.
There is a received wisdom that films should show, not tell. But so much of this film’s potential power resides in its potential to start a conversation. It needs to tell and talk, more than it needs to show. But, to be fair, it is all too easy to spend too long talking about what a film could have been. Lambing might have worked better as a dialogue-driven conversational, in a more limited setting. Ultimately, you can only review the film you have seen. While this is not perfect, it does an important job. In that case, Lambing is more than worthy of recommendation, as it brings a topic to light which needs to be talked about.