In a cramped first floor flat in Halifax’s west end, every room is a hive of activity as the 20-member crew of a new web series manoeuvres the camera and lights while trying to avoid stepping on each other’s toes.
With one narrow hallway from the front door to the rear kitchen, it’s not an easy task, and at the centre of it all is the multi-talented Amy Trefry, a creator of the 10-episode dramatic series I Hear You, which debuts in mid-September. Besides writing and producing — working with co-creators Koumbie and Siri Bright and director Chelsea Innes — and starring as Dr. Alyssa Hartt, a young family doctor trying to bring a fresh perspective to the world of women’s sexual health.
Each episode presents a new case, from women in the early stages of adulthood to the sudden onrush of menopause, with the first season adding up to “10 out of a 100 topics that aren’t being talked about in public,” says Trefry over the cast and crew lunch break.
“But they are being talked about in private, and there’s a deep need to talk about them.”
Funded by Telefilm’s Talent to Watch Program for emerging filmmakers, the web series will cover a wide range of topics, from women feeling underserved by an overworked and sometimes antiquated health services system to Dr. Hartt’s desire to combine tried and true Western medical practises with Eastern holistic techniques.
Trefry, who’s been featured on the CBC-TV series Mr. D as well as in the Seth Smith films The Crescent and the upcoming Tin Can, says the idea for I Hear You took root two years ago when she was dealing a health issue of her own. Due to the rare occasion of this topic coming up in conversation, she wondered why there’s a general reluctance to discuss women’s sexual health in a wider context.
“I asked a group of about a dozen women to come over to my house, and asked if they would speak freely about not only sexual health, but also intimacy and sex in general,” she recalls.
“Then I just sat back for about eight hours and listened, and realized that this need for a space to talk about these things was really deep and people needed to have that opportunity.”
That evening of discussion expanded into almost 100 hours of interviews with women from across Canada, from all demographics, as Trefry sought to find a way to fictionalize and dramatize their stories for as wide an audience as possible. Through these conversations, she also received a lot of feedback on gender bias in medicine, which she views as skewed towards men and less inclined to properly diagnose or treat all patients who identify as women.
By talking to such a broad sample, she got a sense of the most common problems women in the health care system struggle with, but also some of the less common issues that are even more buried, to demonstrate women’s shared experience across the board in trying to be heard, as well as treated.
“Not being able to talk about it creates feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame, that are still very much there, even when you do have a chance to talk about it,” she says.
“I repeatedly tell people I had my own health experiences, but over the past two years of working with women and getting ready to do this show, I still haven’t publicly talked about my own experiences because there’s still so much shame and guilt around women’s health, women’s sexual health, intimacy and sex, particularly for femmes.”
And as Trefry points out, there’s a ripple effect that’s created since no medical issue exists in a vacuum. A problem with one’s physical health can lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression, family disruptions or feelings of isolation, and lack of access for those in rural areas.
The timeliness of I Hear You feels magnified right now as a legal war over women’s reproductive rights is being waged across the border, and looms larger at home, making the importance of getting these issues out in the open that much more urgent.
“It’s about control,” says the filmmaker of increased challenges to Roe vs. Wade in the U.S. “When you’ve got the highest illiteracy rates, child poverty and mortality, shootings in schools, the death penalty ... you can’t tell me it’s about the value of life.
“With everything that’s happening in the States with abortion laws, we have to look at the idea of access. A couple of years ago I read an article by a woman in rural Nova Scotia about her experiences. Even though it’s available here, availability and accessibility are two very different things.”
Trefry likens the experience of many women in the current health system as similar to constantly finding out that your flight is delayed. Nobody takes responsibility for it, and nobody seems able to step up and fix it.
“But when you finally find that customer service agent, you’re going to tell them exactly how you feel about what’s happening to you. I think women need that, and I think we can be that space,” she says.
“Even though we’re not the medical system, we’ll take that. Give us that fear and anger and frustration and those years of suffering and pain, and being ostracized and pushed away. Let us make you feel heard, even though we can’t fix what’s happening.”
Even though I Hear You’s episodes won’t appear online until September, the web series already has a website — www.ihearyouseries.com —and blog up and running, with a podcast waiting in the wings to discuss the show’s topics in greater depth, and other available resources that viewers can turn to for a real world connection to the stories the series is telling. It also has a presence on Facebook and Instagram, and a YouTube channel with production updates.
As Trefry and her collaborators — including a crew that is 80 per cent female — worked on picking which stories to tell, the ideas for ways to make the online series part of a greater resource network came just as quickly, and they can’t wait to put them into practise this fall.
“It snowballed, for sure,” she says. “The Telefilm Talent to Watch Program has a requirement for a discoverability plan, which was a great thing for us because I wanted to have as many platforms for communication as possible.
“Even though it’s a drama, and scripted, we get asked all the time if it’s a documentary because the subject is so real to the life so many women are living.”
Hearing is believing