Debut Film 20,000 species of Bees dazzles the audience in Berlin
The screening of 20,000 species of bees was a special day at the Berlinale. The Berlinale Palast audience rose to their feet to give Estibaliz Urresola's debut feature film a five-minute standing ovation. A slow-paced film that allows us to look at and meet an 8-year-old girl with big eyes who steals the show in a story that, like a beehive, contains multiple subplots and personal vicissitudes that trap us like flies in honey. A few days later, Sofía Otero would win the Silver Bear for Best Actress, the youngest winner of this award in Berlin.
We celebrate the arrival of a new female director in the Berlinale's official selection, in a year in which the number of films directed by women competing for the Golden Bear rose to six, a 32%. The organisation makes no secret of its efforts to be more inclusive, diverse and egalitarian, including in the co-direction of the festival, committees and juries. The Berlinale has been publishing a gender evaluation since 2004 and although it is still far from parity, the figures have improved significantly since then, reaching 41% in 2019 and always hovering around 30% in official competition and a greater presence in parallel sections.
Urresola offers us her pristine look at transgender childhood and her honesty in portraying characters who walk the border. We spoke to the film's producer, Lara Izagirre (Amorebieta, Spain, 1985), am emerging breakthrough producer as she says, but with a solid career as a director behind her and a winning instinct for recognising pure cinema when she reads a project.
Lara, congratulations on this extraordinary film. Tell us about your experience at the Berlinale, reaching the milestone of bringing a debut film to the official selection of an A-class festival like Berlin.
It has been a dream. From the beginning we fantasised about being in Berlinale, but we couldn't have imagined that we would make it to the Official Selection. I was in a shock for three days, digesting the news. Although the screening of 20,000 Species of Bees was planned on Tuesday 21, almost at the end of the festival, we arrived on the first day to enjoy the festival and understand how it worked. We had enough time to watch other films, to prepare our premiere and organise the after-party. Receiving a ten-minute standing ovation! We couldn't have imagined it would happen. And the icing on the cake was getting the call announcing that Sofia had won the acting award.
The co-producer of the film is Valerie Delpierre, from Inicia film, who already went through a similar experience in Berlin with Estiu 1993 (Carla Simon, 2017). Did it make the experience a little easier?
Gariza is the majority producer, so we were responsible for organising the premiere and the party, which was 100% Basque. We even brought the Txakoli (a renowned white wine from the Basque Country). A premiere in Berlin requires a lot of preparation work, or so it seemed to us, but it was an unforgettable experience.
The shortfilm Cuerdas, selected at Cannes was your first work with Estibaliz. Now your fiction feature debut has been awarded in Berlin. What a year! Has your position in the industry changed after this recognition?
The fact that Gariza films is now known internationally, opens many doors for us and makes the road easier. We have access to meetings that were previously unrachable. There is some interest in the projects we set our eyes on, most of which are directed by female directors.
Why would a director with two feature films on her track record, Un Otoño sin Berlín (2015), which introduced Irene Escolar and Nora (2020), move into production? And your slate is powerful: 4 shorts, 2 documentaries, 7 feature films and a feature film in development.
I don't feel like I have moved into production. I have produced my shorts and feature films from the beginning. It has been a qualitative leap because here I have not been the director and we have been the majority producer of a film not directed by me. I committed myself to the project, to the director, and it was a natural step. Estibaliz created the project in the artistic residency that we organised at Gariza, A Room of One's Own. The road was long, with the pandemic in the middle and the project grew more than imagined, but it wasn't something premeditated, we just let ourselves go with the project until we realised that we had a great film.
I've learned a trade, it's been like doing a master's degree, very different from when I produced my films, there were no problems or disagreements between direction and production, because I combined both roles. I have learnt what is important to produce and what I can contribute as a director to the production. It has been very nice. I feel that I am a breakthrough producer, even though there is no award for that. I've felt similar vibes to when I was shooting Un Otoño, because this has been the first project in which I've shown my face as a producer. Accompanying Estíbaliz in all the programmes in which we were selected since 2018. But my vocation as a director/screenwriter has returned. Producing is not a profession I would really want to devote myself to. It has helped me to realise that I am a director and I would rather not carry all the weight of the film. Now I need to get back to my work.
You are preparing another feature film, Yerma, which you are going to direct.
That's right. I'm co-writing with the playwright Maria Goiricelaya, and I'm very happy to get back to writing. I really want to let Bees fly and now I need to make room for other projects, it's a very free version of Lorca's Yerma. Maria has already adapted Lorca's play for the theatre and now we will do an adaptation of her adaptation, but I want to keep the title because it conveys a lot of strength and situates the theme.
What has been your biggest challenge in this film?
Well, this is personal, closely related with how we experienced each part of the process, for me, the shooting was the most complicated, even though it was a beautiful shoot. It was difficult for me to see from the outside (not being a director) the ecosystem of the shoot. I don't remember anything particularly complicated in the whole process. The development was long, then we were caught in the pandemic. When we got to the financing stage, we had already been developing for three years and we had a script that everyone fell in love with. The casting was complex, as always when working with children. In the editing we struggled a bit to reduce the first cut, which came up longer than desirable.
Did you work close to families of trans children, or from the CHRYSALLIS collective, to understand the process?
Estíbaliz was very close to Naizen, the counterpart collective in the Basque Country, and did interviews with families for years. We invited the president of the association to give a talk to the team and during the filming she was always present to give advice.
How did Sofia Otero handle the premiere, the prize and acting? She was only eight by the time of the shooting.
Estíbaliz explains it very well. She pointed out to Sofia that she was a girl but nobody could actually see her as a girl. Sofia acted like the child she is. It was easy to work with her.
When does the project start to become too big?
We were in Ecam's Incubator Programme and we noticed great interest from international festivals. We won the award at the 61st TIFF: Thessaloniki Agora Awards and a grant from the Mediterranean Film Institute, then another development award in Tallinn. The script looked simple at first gance but it had a lot of characters and subplots, which turned into a long shoot. In every aspect, we felt that the film was asking for more. More time to unfold the story, higher budget. Everything was getting bigger and bigger.
When did co-producer Valerie Delpierre come on board?
After development phase. When we had a very solid dossier and script, at the end of 2020. We needed a more experienced producer here, who could give us the peace of mind of having already travelled this road. We started the financing in 2021 with her.
She also made a similar journey, a short film selected at Cannes and then an award-winning film in Berlin. What motivated you to become a filmmaker?
The first time I thought about it was when I saw Lost in Translation by Coppola, that's when I had the revelation. I had studied audiovisual communication and liked films a lot but, unlike now, 20 years ago there was no film school in Bilbao. Being a film director was not an option I could have considered. Now it's different.
Going to New York to do a one-year training was the acid test. On starting the course, we were taught to load a 16mm film in the camera and off we go to shoot a short film. Without further theory or explanation as I was used to. I was ecstatic with that experience, and I knew that I hadn't missed my shot.
What are your references, apart from Sophia Coppola?
I like Andrea Arnold. Also Coppola and many other people, especially the debut films, Ainhoa Rodriguez with Destello Bravío, Manuela MArtelli with 1976, I love the world of Alice Rohrwacher. And I'm forgetting many
Your sensitivity towards women's works is clearly appreciated. And you have produced women. We met at a meeting of Hemen, the Basque associaion of Female filmmakers and EWA Network at the San Sebastian Festival, years ago. How do you frame the work of female networks? Do you think we are encouraging new filmmakers and impulses to emerge?
I see it as a necessary work. I'm very proud of the work of the associations. I'm thrilled by the short film programmes, and HEMEN promoted the first one in the Basque Country. Sometimes that's all they need, an opportunity to be able to make and premiere their short films internationally. It's also important to have the opportunity to simply try it out, whether it goes well or not. It's nice to see how Hemen has grown and has been occupying spaces where we weren't allowed to be before.
I like to believe that the work of the associations has been essential to guarantee a safe space to work, to get to know each other, and even if the funding routes and programmes that thrive gender equity are more frequent now, associations will continue to exist as a safe space for collaboration between women and ensure equal opportunities.
Yes, of course they will. But I hope that we will be in doubt as to whether we will have to exist in the future. That would be a clear indicator that society has changed.
Now it would be impossible, because many filmmakers would be left hanging, without the support network that associations provide. I didn't have it when I started with An Autumn without Berlin in 2015.
Congratulations on this wonderful film that will go a long way.