Emily MaskellI10.23.2023
Estibaliz Urresola Interview – Director of ‘20,000 Species of Bees’
"When you get closer to the trans experience, instead of fear and hostility, you get to a place where you’re more empathic and understanding."

Basque writer-director Estibaliz Urresola’s debut feature 20,000 Species of Bees is a portrait of transformation. Over the course of the summer, one family undergoes a series of transitions in belonging, identity, and expression. However, the film’s heart is eight-year-old Lucía (Sofía Otero), a young trans girl coming of age surrounded by bee hives and extended family. Simultaneously, Lucía’s mother is going through a period of personal reinvention that uproots the family unit.

Gender identity and navigating the body are topics Urresola’s previous work has explored but 20,000 Species of Bees develops her cinematic exploration in more detail. Sitting down with Projektor following the film’s screening at the BFI London Film Festival, Urresola shared her process of researching trans families and how the imagery of bees became a central metaphor to the film.

Projektor: This is your feature film debut—what inspired you to tell this story?

Estibaliz Urresola: In 2018, a 16-year-old trans teenager took their own life. This really sent shockwaves through the Basque Country and Spain. It marked a turning point in terms of visibility around trans children in the country. Until then, there had been no discussion around this, not in the media or society. As is referenced in the film, if something doesn’t have a name it doesn’t exist. I think no greater violence can be done to a person than to negate someone of their very existence.

I started to approach trans families in the Basque country and began the process of interviewing them over two years. My reason for doing this was to understand the transition the family went through as they came to terms with their child’s trans identity. I looked for the common denominators in these families to distil into Lucía’s story. I wanted the film to [show] Lucía having the possibility to exist. I wanted the film to have a happy ending with positivity and joy, a film that trans children could look at and see themselves positively reflected. 

The film also shifts from the child’s perspective to the mother’s. Can you tell me about crafting these two voices and finding the balance between them?

Yes, in many of the families I spoke to, one of their shared experiences is far from what we tend to see in other stories about the trans experience; instead of these ideas of suffering, pain, and conflict, actually it was a learning experience. Having trans children is something that they had to reflect on themselves, their education, and how they were raised. We often live life on autopilot with these unconscious beliefs, and what this triggered in their families was a reflection process which led to them being more empathic and listening to all of their children.

I needed to be able to have [a character] I could relate to and that was the mother, but I didn’t want to lose Lucía’s perspective. They were both central characters, and I wanted the film to be about the transition in the relationship between mother and daughter. Looking at these issues from just an adult cis-gendered woman lens in a patriarchal society meant it’d be very easy to not retain Lucía’s perspective. 

I think no greater violence can be done to a person than to negate someone of their very existence.

There’s a real warmth to how you’ve shot this family and their transformation. Tell me about the visual aesthetic you wanted to achieve.

I felt it was important for the spectator to observe this family in first person. This encapsulated the experience I had with the families during the interview process; I quickly entered this state of trust and intimacy with them. I wanted to bring that feeling to the spectator. Also, I wanted the film to be as realistic and natural as possible, [so] in terms of the lighting and camerawork I stayed away from formal structures and techniques. For example, there is no soundtrack to underline anything, giving the spectator space to feel. I went with the handheld camera in the natural spaces and tried, as much as possible, to work with natural light to preserve this sense of naturalism.

The recurring imagery of individual bees and the hive as a collective is evoked throughout the story. When did it become clear that bees would be a metaphorical presence in the film?

The title is from the second treatment of the script, so it came very early. But it didn’t work completely as a symbol; it was just intuition, as bees are the guarantors of diversity in nature. Bees themselves are diverse. We think bees are always living in communities but that’s not true. There are lots of species that live alone, a lot of them don’t produce honey, and some of them don’t have stingers. They are different among themselves.

I asked Google how many species of bees there are and Google said 20,000. It looked like a good title! I started investigating what I could bring to the film and that’s when I found this ancient [text] in Basque that referred to bees as “sacred animals” to whom everything within the family had to be told. The relationship between beekeepers in the Basque Country and the bees was something very intimate: they talked to them in a more respectful register of the language, different to other animals. This spoke to me as a Basque; it’s a tradition that is not known nowadays.

Bees are something we fear and [see as] dangerous, but when you get closer to them, as I did with the beekeepers, I started to understand that these insects have a lot of strength and sensitivity. Also, they’re fiercely intelligent. As a culture, we tend to have this initial fear or hostility towards bees. The same is true towards trans people. There can be an analogy in terms of: when you get closer to the trans experience, instead of fear and hostility, you get to a place where you’re more empathic and understanding. This happens with not only trans realities but everything unknown to us. When we talk and establish a safer space, things get transformed.

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