Head of Editorial Ella Kemp interviews 20,000 Species of Bees writer and director Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren about her feature debut.
In the Basque community, bees are sacred creatures – if any big changes happen to your family and loved ones, they must know. "Bees, I am Lucía," says a little girl at the end of Estibaliz Urresola Solgauren's sensitive feature debut 20,000 Species of Bees, gently introducing herself after a lifetime struggling to find the words.
10-year-old Sofía Otero plays Lucía, and won the Silver Bear fro Best Leading Performance at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year – making Otero the youngest person to ever win the award. Her performance is gentle but precisely layered, finding strength and simplicity in the uncertainty of her own identity and body.
It is a film about femininity and family – about faith in yourself and your culture and the future, however unfamiliar it may seem. About finding beauty in all of it, starting with the bees.
Girls on Tops: Tell me about having a child as your filmmaking compass – you must need to relinquish control and let a child lead, what was that process like for you?
Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren: In many of my previous works, I've worked with young children, young girls under the age of 11 – so it wasn't my first time doing this. In Audrey, a short I made, I worked with an 11-year-old protagonist who had her period for the first time, and she was a professional swimmer. I was looking at how that impacted her life, friendships, school. I'm often asked this question of how do you work with children. I actually don't see it as that different from working with adults, because it's about communication. It's about arriving at a common language, a shared language between me and the actors.
With Sofía it was easy, because she's got high emotional intelligence. She's really capable of understanding what I was trying to get across to her. When she didn't, she would ask questions. That would lead me to say more to her, and she'd end up understanding. I didn't want to give her a complete script with all the lines for her to rehearse. I'd be more indirect, I'd sit with her and I'd tell her what was happening in each scene. She would do sketches of the scene that I was recounting so this ended up producing a drawn script. This helped in in the filming process, because she was able to refer back to this as a guide.
Sofía is incredible – could you talk about the casting process? You’ve mentioned that your brief was to find girls: not cisgender or transgender girls, just girls. What conversations did you have with the adults helping you find Sofía, and the conversations with the auditioning children to explain what you needed?
As part of the casting process, I wanted to include asking questions about their experience of trans people in their lives. I asked them if they knew anyone, if they had a friend, and how trans people were spoken about. I was interested in finding out how natural and everyday a topic it was for them in their lives. It turns out that the majority of them knew someone, even if it was from their mum's neighbours, or someone in their class or someone in the playground. I was really pleasantly surprised that I always got really good responses from them. I asked, "What are these trans people like?" They'd always say, "Well, they're normal. I don't know what you want me to say." That was where the motivation to to do the film came from.
I've often found that what for adults would be difficult topics to talk about for children just weren't at all, it was very easy for them. One of the nicest parts of the process was this universal foundation, this universality of feeling. For instance, if you were to ask a child, "How would you feel if your brother was being bullied at school? Hw would you feel if your nan wasn't to accept you for who you are?" These are all questions that they could relate to, they could understand, there could be a feeling of loss. That was one of the nice elements I wanted to underscore in the filming process: there's more that unites us than separates us.
Bees reminded me of Carla Simón’s film Alcarràs, in terms of the perspective of children and the importance of making films from where you’re from. Which filmmakers do you feel a kinship with in your work?
I identify with films working in a naturalistic way searching for some inner truth, also denouncing systems that fail us. Cinema is a weapon. It can be a tool to raise awareness and critique things. Cristi Puiu made Sieranevada – it’s not that my film is similar to theirs, but I identify with something in the way they make their films. There’s also Alice Rohrwacher in the way she portrays communities, and the way the individual and the community are linked, dependent on one another. She also works with non-professional actors, which I’m also really interested in. The Dardenne brothers and Ken Loach, of course.
I love Latin American cinema as well, because it has this socially rooted cinematography. They really believe in cinema as a tool for action and resistance. Lucrecia Martel beautifully works with family constellations, and how difficult it can be for the individual to exist within those relationships. In her 2004 film The Holy Girl, she breaks the unique point of view – I’m really interested in that.
What do the bees mean to Basque communities specifically?
I wanted the bees to symbolise something about trans people: they are an element of natural diversity that is being protected. As I was writing the script, beyond the bees as a symbol, there was also the hive as a symbol, with each bee within the hive having its own unique role to play. As I was researching the film, I found this old Basque ballad which spoke about the importance of these in the history of Basque culture.
Bees aren't so important today in Basque culture, but they historically had a pride of place. Basque culture speaks of bees as sacred creatures. It addresses them in the polite Usted form in the Basque language, and not in the Tu form which is the informal form, as the rest of animals are referred to. Bees have an important role within families – when there's an important event, a birth or death, the bees are informed of this, to keep them in the loop, so there's a strong link. I found all of this fascinating because we tend to think of bees as a threat, we're hostile towards them, we're scared of them. And yet, they're actually completely invaluable. We're entirely dependent upon them and what they do for us. I wanted to transpose this metaphor to transgender people as well. Initially you can have an attitude of hostility or fear, or you can perceive these different people as a threat. But in getting close to them and having a dialogue, you actually gain a greater level of understanding and sense of union with them and a greater sense of empathy, which is what I really wanted to underscore in the film.
20,000 Species of Bees is in cinemas now via Curzon, and available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema.