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Annabel Jankel • Director

“This film would not have been made by a man”


- Fresh from its world premiere at Toronto, we chatted to London-born Annabel Jankel about Tell It to the Bees, her first feature since 1993’s Super Mario Bros.

Annabel Jankel  • Director
(© Zurich Film Festival)

Directed by Annabel Jankel, and starring Anna Paquin and Holliday GraingerTell It to the Bees [+see also:
film review
interview: Annabel Jankel
film profile
 is based on the novel of the same name by Fiona Shaw. Set in 1950s Scotland, it focuses on the forbidden relationship between two women: young mother Lydia (Grainger) and Jean (Paquin), who comes back to the town that once shunned her in order to take over her father’s practice. When they move in together after Lydia gets evicted, the sudden decision arouses suspicions. The film world-premiered at Toronto and is now screening at the Zurich Film Festival.

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Cineuropa: Your film is set in an isolated community in 1950s Scotland. Do you think there is still this stigma surrounding same-sex relationships?
Annabel Jankel:
 It all depends on the country, but I think that in small communities, it can still potentially be a problem. Throughout the years, women have been living together in romantic relationships very much under the radar, under the guise of it being just a friendship, for example. It’s only really now, in the last decade or so, that people have become much more open about it. But I think there is still a lot of prejudice. At the beginning of this story, all we see is this very closed community, and by the end, two women that have gone on a journey together. I really wanted to tell a love story, but not something that would be full of violence and misery. It needed to have the drama of reality, but with the potential for a positive message about change. 

After the successful TV show The L Word, some people claimed that mainstream audiences can only accept homosexual romances if the leads are stunningly beautiful. Weren’t you afraid to follow in the same trend?
That’s an interesting question, and I haven’t really thought about it. I think it had more to do with the vulnerability of the actors. I was looking for this capacity to emote certain feelings. Anna and Holliday are both exceptionally good actors – and Anna already did the Scottish accent in The Piano! She is from New Zealand, is married to a Brit and lives in Los Angeles. There are so many aspects to her that she felt like a perfect outsider. And Holliday has this tremendous capacity for empathy. You always feel very protective towards her. Together, they just felt like the perfect combination.

There is this ongoing conversation now about what female filmmakers can bring to the table. Do you think this film is different because it had a woman at the helm?
I think this movie would not have been made by a man. I can’t speak on behalf of the entire male gender, of course, but I don’t think that a male director would have necessarily been attracted to the source material. This story is quite female-centric, and I saw the sex scene as a manifestation of the tenderness and a friendship that has developed into this sexual attraction. I wasn’t trying to make it seductive; I was just trying to show the intimacy of these two people. That said, I wasn’t thinking about whether I was looking at it all from a female or a male perspective. I was looking at it from the perspective of the characters.

Three characters, actually. Lydia’s little son Charlie, played by Gregor Selkirk, also tries to constantly figure out what is going on around him. 
We do look at the whole thing from the confusion of this boy, trying to understand sex. And not only trying to understand sex, which would have been bad enough in the 1950s, but trying to understand what is going on between his mother and this other woman. Navigating through the secrets and lies, and trying to figure out what is a secret and what is a lie. At one point during the development of the script, we tried to look at it entirely from the child’s point of view. But it became less interesting, as the entire love story would then be happening off-screen.

These scenes you mentioned before, of the growing intimacy between the couple, are very subtly done. I heard that they were described in the script right down to every detail.
The thing about this relationship is that it’s not only crossing the gender barrier, because it’s two women, but it’s also crossing the class barrier, which is still a big thing in Britain. You have this upper-middle-class woman building a relationship with a factory worker. That was really unheard of! I wanted to show all the stages of them finally getting to the point where they can actually touch. There is this scene when they are having tea, and one really wants to touch the other but can’t bring herself to do it. It’s too intimate a thing to do. Or when they are at the lake and want to hug, but don’t dare go that far. It had to be a slow build-up. But as a viewer, you are aware of that frisson.

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