In Georgia Oakley's feature directorial debut, Blue Jean, cerulean undertones set a nostalgic tone for this historical drama about a British lesbian living a double life under the iron rule of Margaret Thatcher.
Although the characters and lives depicted in the film arose from the imagination of its writer and director, the de jure discrimination against LGBTQ+ people of the time was very real. In 1988, Thatcher's Conservative government passed Section 28, which outlawed the "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities and in schools. In Blue Jean, the law casts a shadow over the lives of lesbians like Jean (played by Rosy McEwen), who must hide her sexuality to keep her job as a PE teacher at a secondary school. Outside of school, she is in a longterm relationship with her very-out girlfriend, Viv (Kerrie Hayes), with whom Jean frequents a local lesbian bar.
"I wanted to make a film that spoke to my own experience," Oakley explains. "I was really set on the idea that there would be a lesbian couple that we encounter at the beginning of the film, and they are in a fully-fledged relationship. That is something I see often in films about straight couples — you have to imagine how they met each other together and all that — but I felt like that was something that I was missing from the portrayal of lesbian women that I'd seen on-screen."
The arrival of a new student threatens to uncover Jean's dual lives, as Lois (Lucy Halliday, in her film debut) goes searching for queer community and ends up discovering her teacher at the lesbian bar. Through this nuanced portrayal of an intergenerational queer relationship, Oakley is able to play with the idea of what it means to be — or not be — a queer role model.
Blue Jean premiered at the 79th edition of the Venice Film Festival — where it won the People's Choice Award — and now arrives in theaters 20 years after Section 28 was finally struck down in 2003. The film is not, however, a relic of some distant past; in the present day, the fight continues for the "inalienable right to be gay." As a queer filmmaker, Oakley knows firsthand that films about homophobia in the public sphere are still urgent and relevant to today's audiences as threats to LGBTQ+ rights persist around the world.
"Different audiences bring their own baggage to watching the film," Oakley says. "Some people think we've progressed beyond the point of actually talking about these issues, and then there will be other people in other countries who say the situation right now is exactly the same as it was in the '80s in the north of England."
A.frame: You were inspired to write this film because of the lack of awareness around Section 28, despite the historical impact it had on you and your teachers during that time. Why did you decide to fictionalize the lives of lesbians during this time period, instead of maybe making a documentary? [Oakley previously directed a short documentary, We Did Not Fall from the Sky.]
It was always going to be a fictional film. Blue Jean came about as I was in a pitch meeting with BBC. Every executive I was talking to kept sort of saying, 'Oh, no, that's too similar to something else we're doing.' And, 'No, we don't like that. What else have you got?' At the end of the meeting, I was panicked, and I suggested a story about a teacher during Section 28. And they were like, 'Yeah, that's great.' So, it came about, quite suddenly. But it was always going to be a fictional film, and it was always going to be historic.
I wanted to explore these themes about internalized homophobia and the way that, as queer people, we can splinter off our identity in the different spaces that we exist. And actually, I was working on another project that was set in the present day and completely not inspired by any kind of real events. But I think, because I hadn't written a feature film before, I remember thinking, 'If I can find a moment in time that allows me to hold those themes under a microscope and look at them in a more heightened way, that would allow me to channel my own experiences, but not have them appear like my experiences.' [Laughs] That that would be quite liberating as a writer. I would feel safety in the fact that these things actually happened, these people actually existed, and I could speak to lots of different people and become very well-informed, and then, find my story from within that. I think it initially came from a space of fear, not being able to address my own experiences directly and wanting to find a shape through which I could look at them.
But actually, while we were researching the film, which took about four years, during that time, we met so many inspiring people whose stories are nothing like Jean's. Most of the people we spoke to were politicians, or activists, or queer women who lived in Newcastle at the time. I remember saying to my producer, 'We need to make a documentary. Because this film is a portrait of one woman, and we owe it to these people that we've met to make another film.' Obviously, that was not an option. Luckily, since screening of the film, I've run into someone in the UK who is making a documentary about Section 28, and she's spoken to a lot of the same people we spoke to. So, I'm excited to see that film.
In this film, there are a lot of pivotal moments that happen within the context of the queer bar. I think a lot of LGBTQ+ people will be able to relate, because many of their first experiences in finding community were within the safety of a gay bar. But there aren't many representations of sapphic or lesbian joy on the dance floor. What was it like filming those scenes?
We were working with members of the queer community to populate the world of the queer bar, pumping out '80s jeans and having people dancing and all that to shoot those scenes. We brought modern-day young queer people to that space, and even though they hadn't read the script, they got the general gist. There was such enthusiasm and energy, because there's a nostalgia for those spaces, and a realization that those spaces are pretty rare. The ones that exist today are very sacred now that everything's moved online, and queerness is moving more into the mainstream.
It's an interesting thing to talk about, because the experiences of people who came to help us shoot those scenes are very different of the women that we spoke to during research. We spoke to lesbian PE teachers who inspired the story, and they would often speak about these spaces. We worked very closely with the queer community in Newcastle. They would look back on these lesbian housing co-ops, and particularly the fact that it was always downstairs, underground, and had no windows. When I hear Catherine, one of our PE teachers, talk about those spaces, I want to cry! Because she said, 'I suppose I felt like we didn't deserve windows.' I hear them say things like that, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, there's so much sadness wrapped up in those spaces from her memory,' at least in the way I digest that information.
But we were keen to show the importance of community and all the different shapes that community might take, and how important role models are. As someone who grew up during Section 28, I didn't have a single role model. I remember being accepted into a queer filmmakers mentoring program when I was 26. The person running the program was a lesbian woman, and she was the first lesbian woman of the generation above me that I met who was married and had children. That kind of representation was just completely removed from my life. I remember thinking that it was so crazy that I had not encountered it. The absence of role models was a huge thing that we discussed when developing the film.
That actually leads perfectly to my next question. What made me emotional watching the film is that many queer people grow up isolated in their experiences without role models. How did you think through Jean and Lois' relationship? In many ways, Jean is learning from her younger peer.
As someone who had queer members of my family in the generation above, I found it very easy to judge the way they behaved while I was a young person. Let's say they were married for a long time and it was a kind of sham marriage, I would look at that and think, 'How could somebody do that?' But then, as I got older, I started to realize that it's very difficult within the queer community to understand how it was for the generation above or the generation below. It was always a part of the story to show those generations learning from each other. Jean and Lois have a sort of cat-and-mouse dynamic, where Lois ultimately becomes kind of a teacher for Jean.
Community plays an important role in Lois' journey as a 15-year-old beginning to find herself. She's walked into those lesbian spaces and found role models, in a way that Jean wasn't afforded that experience. Some people grow up in cosmopolitan, liberal places, where they grew up with acceptance all around them, and other people don't. And that is very much still happening everywhere. I see it in the way this film has been received in different countries. Different audiences bring their own baggage to watching the film. Sometimes I'll get audience members saying to me, 'Why a film about this? You know, we've got equal marriage. Haven't we progressed?' It's amazing to me that some people think we've progressed beyond the point of actually talking about these issues. And then there will be other people in other countries who say the situation right now is exactly the same as it was in the '80s in the north of England.
This film is bathed in blue, and the tone of the cinematography really emphasizes the nostalgia and isolation. Can you describe your approach to the visual style of this film?
I knew straight off the bat I wanted to evoke the '80s. But I feel like a lot of present-day films and TV shows that depict the '80s, it's obvious they weren’t made in the '80s. There's a focus on these vibrant color palettes that signpost the '80s. Looking back at films that were made in the '80s, they didn't often share that. So, from the very beginning, I was trying to kind of deviate away from some of that. I also was interested in the idea of the pushing a pastoral aesthetic in the spaces that are most hostile for the lead character. If you think about her sister's house and the school, the locations that are the most hostile for Jean are the kindest and gentlest in terms of color palettes.
You really had a lot of creative control as the writer and director of this film. Can you talk about your decision to shoot on 16mm? Because I know that that is more expensive than shooting on digital.
You learn as a director to know when to be uncompromising, and when to compromise. I'm definitely still on that learning curve. But the one thing I definitely did not compromise on from the beginning was that we would shoot this film on 16mm. There was pushback, but in the end, we made it happen. Shooting 16mm was something that I had decided way back before getting together with any crew members. I'd made my previous short film on 16mm, and I love the way that it intensifies the experience of being on set. Obviously, aesthetically, I love the grain structure. I was trying to make something that felt quite timeless, and I felt the grain structure of 16mm and the unpredictability of it would add another layer. I'm a sucker for film photographs. I take not very good ones. I spend a lot of money to develop it, I get the film back, and I get like five pictures that I like. But I love that. I'm addicted to that feeling of not knowing what it's going to be.
It was the same when we shot this movie on film. A lot of the time, we'd get the rushes back, they'd have to be driven down to London from Newcastle overnight, and then, they'd have to be developed, and they'd have to be scanned and brought back, and it would take a few days. And sometimes, we would get it back and someone would point out this scene or that really pivotal thing is out of focus. It was incredibly stressful, because there were things that had gone wrong that we could not change — and then what do you do? I was thinking, 'What the hell have I done? Why have I made this decision?' But ultimately, the unpredictability of it is so much a part of why I love it. And it's worth all of those battles — not just for the aesthetic quality of it, but the feeling.
By Jireh Deng