Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren’s first feature film, 20,000 Species of Bees, focuses on the ups and downs of Lucía, a trans girl exploring her identity during a summer in the Basque country. In struggling for the understanding and acceptance that would provide a crucial first step towards a happier life, she provokes her family – and especially her mother – to rethink their own lives, relationships and desires. In this, it extends a line of films about gender non-conforming youths that goes back to Alain Berliner’s Ma Vie en Rose (1997) and includes Boys Don’t Cry (2000), directed by Kimberley Peirce, Lucía Puenzo’s Argentinian drama XXY (2007) about an intersex teenager, Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy (2011), Girl by Lukas Dhont (2018) and Sébastien Lifshitz’s docu-drama Little Girl (2020), amongst others. I spoke to Solaguren about how 20,000 Species of Bees relates to this line of films, and about how it steers away from depictions of physical violence towards its protagonist, concentrating instead on the difficulties of family relationships.
‘It started in 2018 when a 16-year-old child committed suicide’, says Solaguren. ‘It really struck me, and the Basque society. The child left a note, saying “I am struggling”, not because of a lack of family acceptance, but because it was so hard to get hormone treatment. It was published in the media, thanks to the father, and started a big discussion about trans children, which was new for our society,’ she continues. ‘Families with trans children were invited for television, magazine and newspaper interviews. I didn’t know I was going to make a film about it, but I was so touched by the father’s letter that I started interviewing some other parents and felt I could make something with them about this. The families told me that having a trans child made their bond stronger – it was valuable for them. Previous films had underlined the suffering and pain but not this narrative – I wanted to reflect that.’
Some previous films about trans youth – especially Boys Don’t Cry, about the rape and murder of Brandon Teena, killed along with two friends in Nebraska in 1993 – have focused on violent suppression of their characters’ gender identities, but 20,000 Species of Bees specifically avoids this type of depiction. ‘I knew many of the kids I met [during this process] were going to see the film and I didn’t want to focus on violence,’ says Solaguren. ‘Many of these children, between five to 10 years old, they had [gone through] their socialisation process in their schools and almost everything was going well. They were living good lives, having already been accepted, [so] why not tell this story? I wanted to create references that they could identify with in a healthy way. I believe the cinema doesn’t just reproduce reality – it also produces reality.’
Following this train of thought, Solaguren carries on. ‘Looking through Lucía’s eyes, there is a lot of violence, but not the evident violence.’ Solaguren refers to a key scene, where Lucía is at the swimming pool, and has to give her name and gender to get an ID card. ‘This shows the systemic violence that defines the public space,’ reflects Solaguren. ‘When you fit the system, you don’t notice it, but it’s awful for someone who doesn’t.’ The experience of showing off her body, worrying about how people will react to her, and especially using the changing rooms, is traumatic for Lucía. ‘When she’s peeing, in such a vulnerable situation, [being questioned] about her identity and her gender, it’s violent,’ says Solaguren, ‘as is the mother’s answer, even as she thinks she’s just trying to protect and love her child. It’s a more subtle level of violence, that is complicated to understand and unpick.’
Asked about previous films about young trans and gender non-conforming people, Solaguren says that, ‘I saw them at an early stage [of the filmmaking process], to make sure I wouldn’t repeat them, and instead tell something new.’ We discussed Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy, about a ten-year-old who moves to a new home and begins experimenting with male presentation, released to considerable acclaim in 2011. ‘It’s so brave for its time, but at least around me, society is somewhere else now,’ reflects Solaguren. ‘The mothers I met told me something completely different [to the story in Tomboy].’ It’s refreshing to hear this, amidst the current media and political onslaught against young trans people in particular, and it does give a sense of how times have changed since Ma Vie en Rose, the first high-profile feature film about a trans child, which came out in 1997.
Ma Vie en Rose has many scenes where the central character, Ludovic, escapes into fantasy in the face of family hostility, in an effort to feel safe. Solaguren took a different approach: ‘I wanted to portray a girl rooted in her life,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want anyone to be able to say she was living in a fantasy. I wanted to focus not just on Lucía’s character, but to portray the whole family as a beehive.’ Indeed, Lucía’s grandmother – a beekeeper, hence the film’s title – is the first to accept her identity, and their touching bond leads Lucía’s parents and siblings to reconsider their attitudes. ‘They have their own transformations thanks to Lucía, whose process affects them all positively,’ Solaguren tells me. ‘This is always individual, but I think trans identities are more about how much space society gives to them, and the conflict that comes with the gaze of the other.’
Talking about actor Sofía Otero, who plays the nine-year-old Lucía, Solaguren is effusive. ‘She has a great inner emotional world, but is lovely, happy, funny and extroverted. When we first saw her, I thought she could be one of the girls at the pool. Having seen almost 500 girls, I realised I never had Sofía [audition] for the main character, [so] I called her back.’ This was a sound decision, as Sofía gave an assured, mature performance. ‘I was shocked at how much tenderness she displayed,’ says Solaguren. ‘I learned that we often make conclusions from first impressions and realised she could do far more than I thought. This is what happens to the mother in the film – she sees that she, [along with] everyone else, has given her child a role, but the child is so much more than that.’
Otero’s performance certainly lifts 20,000 Species of Bees, with Lucía’s relationship with her grandmother forming an emotional core to a tender, moving film. It is a worthy addition to the canon of works about young trans people – and its quiet depiction of a family in transition will hopefully provide comfort and inspiration to children and parents alike.
20,000 SPECIES OF BEES IS NOW PLAYING IN CINEMAS AND ON CURZON HOME CINEMA