There's a scene in Nina Davenport's documentary, First Comes Love, that cuts to the heart of the matter, through all the humour, poignancy and courageous baring of body and soul that she brings to her film about the decision to have a baby as a single woman at the age of 41.
Davenport, who is well-known for her intimate cinematic essays about her life, interviews another single fortysomething friend in her apartment as she checks to see if she's pregnant. Dressed in her bathrobe, her friend talks calmly about how this is the last time she's going to try. If she's not pregnant, she will give up and adopt. The camera follows her as she goes into the bathroom to check for the tell-tale mark on the pregnancy test stick. There is silence; the camera watches the closed door. Her friend emerges. With controlled emotion, she tells us she is not pregnant. Her disappointment is all the more heartbreaking for her attempt to casually dismiss it.
Davenport then interviews her friend's mother, who had dropped by to share in the expected joy and now, the disappointment. She asks her whether she thinks that the current generation of women has better choices than hers did. She thinks about it, and says, "I do. I would rather choose your life over what I had because you're more of your own person." In town last month for the Toronto International Film Festival, Davenport, who lives in New York, sighs as she recalls that exchange: "To me that is one of the most moving moments in the film because basically she's saying it's hard but that we, as women, have progressed despite these difficulties. We are more empowered.
"I know so many women who have gone through the same trauma that I have gone through, feeling as though they're running out of time to have a baby, trying to find the right relationship but can't, and they're freaking out…. Once I decided that, 'Okay, no more waiting,' it was a huge burden lifted."
Davenport is an intense, rumpled force of nature in dark pants and an untucked shirt with long, frilly hair as she walks into the foyer of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Toronto, looking at the smooth, polished surfaces (expensive marble floors and cosmetically enhanced faces) with an equal measure of anthropological wonder and casual disregard. In her wake squirms her toddler, Jasper, now 4, who was conceived in-vitro with the sperm of her gay friend, Eric. He is not in attendance, but Amy, her close friend, birth coach and film-festival babysitter, who is an important character in the documentary, is, smiling wanly as she keeps Jasper from knocking over the floral arrangements.
"I should write films that make lots of money so I can stay in places like this," Davenport mutters as the two of us make our way to a table on the patio to talk. The comment is ironic, or least self-deprecating. Davenport comes from a well-off family – her two brothers, who also feature in the film, are high-powered Manhattan types, and her parents raised the family in comfortable, upper-class circumstances.
Davenport went to Harvard, graduating with a degree in visual studies, but her decision to be a filmmaker – one who makes low-budget confessional documentaries – is often a source of irritation to her conventional father, a retired lawyer. He thinks nothing of telling her that she should have done more with her educational opportunities and refuses to help her financially.
That aspect of her life is folded into this film as well, of course. Little is spared, including her father's harsh relationship with her (and toward the end, the surprising reasons in his childhood for his own limitations as a parent). When she asks him in the film if she should have a baby as a single woman – Davenport seems to go through her life with a camera permanently attached to her arm – he tries to dissuade her. Later, when she does inform him, happily, that she is pregnant, he drops the newspaper he is reading to tell her point-blank that she should have an abortion. When the film screened at TIFF, there was a huge, collective intake of breath from the audience, shocked at the hurtfulness of his comment.
But Davenport is unflinching about exposing all aspects of her life. For her, honesty seems to be as natural and unavoidable as breathing, even in person. In the film, we see her at her most vulnerable moments, naked in the bath, worrying about the imminent birth; in the hospital, while in labour and as her son is born vaginally; and sitting on the couch beside the birth father, her breasts exposed like a cow's udder, suction cups over her nipples as she pumps breast milk.
"Our culture makes women feel ashamed about our bodies, so part of it is to say, 'Okay, I don't care. I'm not ashamed,'" she explains. "And also I prioritize art over my own vanity."
That comment about the importance of art is the best way to understand Davenport, whose manner of speaking in rapid-fire, run-on sentences feels similar to her filming style – let life tumble forth; edit later. First Comes Love is much more than a thoughtful examination of how the modern family is being re-imagined with the help of a village of characters, from her aunt to her sisters-in-law to her gay friends and a boyfriend (film critic John Anderson) who later gets dumped. It also looks at the relationship between parent and child; how the child's experience informs the parent he or she will become; and how love can prevail despite the limitations of those who are supposed to care for us the most.
During the course of making the film – Davenport, now 46, worked on it for four years – her beloved mother, who was a great source of support for her, died. Throughout the film, her father is distant and unlikeable, but she expertly redeems him in a way, at the end, by rousing our empathy for the struggles of his own childhood as the son of an alcoholic.
"I actually found that seeing my father as a character in the film … helped me be more forgiving. It's amazing how distancing myself as I need to do in the editing room made me have more compassion for him."
Film is her life, and the art of one helps her understand the complexities of the other for the benefit of people who may have never met her.
First Comes Love will air on HBO, TVO and The Knowledge Network in 2013.