A period piece furiously relevant to the present, Blue Jean frames a lesbian PE teacher living in Thatcher’s Britain trying to exist and thrive without having to fly a flag. Xuanlin Tham meets the film’s writer and director Georgia Oakley to hear about one of the best British debuts in recent memory.
Georgia Oakley’s Blue Jean was sparked by the discovery of a newspaper article – a story about the activists who abseiled into the House of Lords during a debate on Section 28. “I was taken with this amazing image. These women wrapped in washing line, who threw themselves over the balcony,” Oakley remembers. Section 28 was enacted by a Conservative government in 1988 to forbid ‘the promotion of homosexuality’; it is disorienting, if not surprising, to recall that it was only repealed in 2003.
But the slippages between now and what we attempt to banish to a sealed-off past were indicative of the film Oakley felt compelled to make: one that would illuminate a specific moment in queer history through intimate, personal storytelling. A portrait of lesbian PE teacher Jean’s growing sense of entrapment in Thatcher-era England, Blue Jean is gorgeously textured in its exploration of the pleasures and punishments of queer visibility in a surveillant world. It finds rhythms that are enduring: its vulnerable heartbeat pulses as much from the exhaustion of trading honesty for safety, as from the cigarette-smoke euphoria of laughing into a lover’s mouth. Oakley spoke to Girls On Tops about her debut feature, building its political and psychological landscape, and inhabiting ambiguity.
Girls On Tops: You create such a rich historical backdrop with news snippets, radio, and TV: Jean’s often surrounded by one form of state-sanctioned homophobia or another. What was your research process like?
Georgia Oakley: We met around 40 women who were in some way connected to the story, whether they were PE teachers, activists, or lesbians who lived in northern England at the time. It being my first feature, I felt if I could find a story where I could go and hide out at the library, that would be really fascinating. It felt like part of my journey as a queer person to go to those archives and look through the photographs, the letters, the speeches. It was important for me, beyond just providing texture for the film. But the conversations she has, in the staff room or at [her sister’s] party, are all inspired by letters or TV interviews I found from '88.
What attracted you to setting a film in Thatcher-era Britain, and illuminating our present through that period?
Hopefully we're proving them wrong now, but at the time, certain places felt our film was bogged down in something that happened a long time ago. The women we spoke to had stories about overt, violent acts of homophobia – cars being spray painted in the night, a brick through the window – whilst I knew that was the reality at the time, I felt if I could focus on the subtle microaggressions that queer people experience, maybe that would be the missing link. It's crude and I hate to say it, but sometimes people want to be convinced, rather than having a brick through a window showing, ‘This is what it was like, and wasn't it awful at that time.’ I wanted people to feel like, ‘That is awful, but it could also happen today.’
My producer Hélène [Siffre] and I were also interested in how queer people have to navigate strange ground: you might be in a taxi with your girlfriend, and the driver assumes your girlfriend is your sister; and sometimes, no matter how comfortable you are with yourself, you find yourself going along with whatever they said because you don’t have the energy, and that feels almost as humiliating. Not flying the flag when you maybe feel that you should can be a weird feeling.
Jean seems caught in that exact crossfire. What was it like writing her, and the way she seals off her interiority to protect herself?
The fact that Jean’s not very good at speaking about her emotions was something I could identify with. When she says, "What makes you think she has a place in this world?" about Lois, that was me trying to communicate these feelings that are so buried we don't even know they're there. She doesn’t think that for a minute, but she’s acting in a trauma-responsive way, and that was something I related to.
Before I came out, I went to a doctor because I'd gotten whiplash in the night. The doctor said, “Were you in a car accident?” and I was like, no, I just woke up like this. A build-up of unspoken things had manifested physically like I had been in a car accident. The teachers we met had similar experiences; [they were] saying, “Now I've had 15 years of therapy, I can identify I was experiencing internalised homophobia.” But at the time, even when I came out, that wasn't part of our language. We now have the tools to speak about these experiences, and I felt compelled to tell a story about that. Particularly at that time in 2018, queer filmmakers were being pushed to tell sugar-coated stories, because for so long, there's been a lack of that. But we have to allow queer filmmakers to make films that mean something to them, “positive” or not.
How did you develop the relationship between Jean and her girlfriend, Viv? They care for each other deeply, but their political incompatibility pulls them apart. Viv believes the world has to change, not them; Jean is the other way around.
I was interested in this classic thing of opposites attract, but it was more complex than that. Jean doesn't wear her queerness on her sleeve, and she feels she's made a conscious decision to do that. But if you are one way, and somebody is radically the opposite, the boldness of their self-expression would be kind of thrilling for you, but also terrifying. That makes for this addictive obsession for Jean. She’s drawn to Viv because there's something in the ease with which Viv moves through the world that Jean wants for herself, but also doesn’t.
There's an assumption that Viv is right, and in lots of ways she is. But what if somebody wants to be out, and not have their entire life be about being part of the queer community? I felt quite strongly that somebody should be able to say, “I don't identify with that.” Viv thinks she’s got it all figured out, but something is pulling her backwards, and that's part of her attraction to Jean: the fact that she’s sort of eternally unavailable is the allure.
One of the teachers we spoke to wasn't actually in the UK in 1988. She was in a part of Florida where the mayor was gay, and it was like a Mecca for gay people. She went there on holiday, but fell in love with it, and decided to stay and abandon her teaching career. But after a year, she realised that so much of her life was about fighting to move her world into something better, and after living somewhere where she didn't have to fight, she felt kind of empty. She moved back to the UK and started teaching again, and experienced almost what Jean experienced. People form their identities as being a part of this struggle; sometimes they can't get away from it.
One of my favourite scenes in Blue Jean is Jean coaching her students, Siobhan and Lois, at netball: your camera lingers on the haptics of her touching them, and so much charges that scene. Tension, jealousy, the heat of being the object of that gaze. Every time I've tried to describe it to someone I can’t, really.
It made perfect sense to me on the page, but I wasn't sure whether we'd achieved that. The description was very similar to what you said, with her sort of manipulating their bodies; I think the words in the script were, "There is a fizzy, freeway energy between Siobhan, Lois, and Jean."
Rosy [McEwen], particularly, would pick out that scene and be like, “What's this energy you’re writing about? Is there an attraction between Lois and Jean?’ I was like, no, no, no. On one hand, it's a magnetism between two people who have outed each other, so they're now aware of each other in a way that [wasn’t there] previously. It's not about attraction at all; it's a sort of collective otherness.
But I was interested in this blatant homophobia, [of] if you were gay, you were not safe around children, and how we internalise these messages. As a queer woman, if I'm in a womens’ changing room, I feel like, “Oh, where do I look,” because of the messaging of the world around me. It’s an unconscious thing. So the reason the film is focused on a PE teacher is because her job is concerned with bodies: I knew we would be able to show a change in how she interacts with those bodies, how comfortable she feels around them.
Returning to the demand for happy endings: it maybe bifurcates queer stories into two extremes, which absolves us of the more difficult political work queer film should do. I don’t think it’s about just proving that we are moral beings deserving of happiness. What would you like to see in queer filmmaking?
There is 100% space to make films that delve into the struggle of what it means to be queer whilst lacing this experience with joy. That's what we set out to do with Blue Jean. Section 28 gave rise to amazing activism that ultimately brought people together, and that's how most people remember it. I think you're right about splitting the experience, and how that gets into quite dangerous territory. I'm all for these popcorn, happy ending stories, but I think it's okay to muddle the experience a little – and keep things in the grey area, which is where I like to be.
Blue Jean is out in UK cinemas now.