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Blue Jean and the Impact of Internalized Homophobia: Interview with Director Georgia Oakley

By Sandra M Ríos U
Twitter: @sandritamrios

Internalized homophobia is a key theme in "Blue Jean," the story of a physical education teacher who grapples with it without being aware that she is afflicted by it. Her work environment and the era she lives in have led her to accept staying in the closet.

The film is set in the 1980s, during the time when Margaret Thatcher introduced a known article called "Section 28," which prohibited promoting homosexuality in schools.

Georgia Oakley directs a film that takes a different look at the gay community, one that delves into their personal relationships and dilemmas to gain a clearer understanding of how society's policies, stereotypes, and behaviors shape and affect them. Oakley's approach to the world of female homosexuality is full of subtleties, honest truths, and realities presented without excessive drama or jubilation. This is what the director told us about the origin of her film, the testimonies that helped build the script, the work to set the ambiance, and her great protagonist, Rosy McEwen.

Actually, no. It's curious that you ask because in retrospect, it was one of the songs on my initial playlist when I was writing the film, but that's not where the title comes from. People have also commented that Rosy bears a strong resemblance to David Bowie in the movie, which is a complete coincidence. The title comes from 1980s UK lesbian slang, which said that you could identify as a woman in blue jeans, meaning you identified as feminine but preferred to wear blue jeans over traditionally feminine clothing. That's where it all started from the beginning, something I later forgot, and the producer reminded me of it.

Section 28 was a law introduced by Margaret Thatcher and her government in 1988. It came about because there was going to be a new curriculum in schools for children. They were going to be taught that there are different types of families, essentially that there are homosexual people, so there was a strong reaction because parents all over the country did not want their children to learn that in school. Margaret Thatcher used this fear and moral panic and made a very famous speech about it in 1987, part of which is in the movie, and promised that if she was re-elected as Prime Minister, she would do something about it. She was re-elected and she did it, introducing Section 28, which stated that it was illegal to promote homosexuality in schools and local governments. This law was in place from 1988 until 2003 when it was repealed.

Yes, I always wanted to make a film about internalized homophobia, especially about someone who is not aware that they are suffering from it. I think nowadays we have the language to describe these things, but many of the women I spoke to did not. I interviewed many teachers, lesbian teachers, who had worked during Section 28, and they told me there simply wasn't the language to describe what they were going through, that they didn't understand their own experiences and their own shame. Blue Jean is, for me, a kind of story about someone who is learning to let go of this shame they don't know they carry with them.

Well, I would say that part of the plot of the film, for example, the idea that a teacher could run into a student in a bar and that could disrupt the balance, was one of them. That was something we talked about with many women, and time and time again, there was the same story that I met one of my students in a bar, or I met a student's parent in a bar, or I met another teacher in a bar. All of these situations were problematic for them because they lived in silence, in the closet; no one could know. Hence this idea that there could be a kind of cat-and-mouse relationship between a student or someone else who could have the power to ruin that experience. That was always there from the beginning, from when I talked to those women. There was another woman who talked a lot about her romantic relationships and how much the law had affected them, but also about the internalized homophobia she carried and didn't understand why her relationships kept failing. But 30 years later, she can now understand that she was in a very similar place to Jean.

I always set out to do that. I love the films you're talking about, and I really enjoy watching them, but I always wanted to make a film that dealt more with the personal and the political and less with Section 28 and what was happening at that time in the UK. It's more than a kind of background story. I wanted to show the real effects of this on a human being and scrutinize their life and choices under a microscope for 90 minutes. I felt it was a way to honor those teachers who were largely forgotten, their experiences overlooked. It's also a very common stereotype in the UK, this idea of the lesbian PE teacher, so I felt that one way to break that stereotype was to give this character the entire movie and look at what she feels minute by minute, rather than what's happening politically on a larger scale.

Yes, well, it was a real pleasure to work with Rosy. She was everything I imagined for Jean and more. I wasn't aware of her work before she auditioned for the film, but she sent in her tape, and when she started speaking, she just transformed into the character I had imagined. She had the accent, she had the energy, she had the stillness of that character, and she really seemed to understand what it meant to go from zero to a hundred in the blink of an eye and walk into a room, for example. From her audition, I realized that Rosy understood something of what it felt like and could communicate it without doing much.

Yes, I would say that part of that, part of the reason it feels contemporary, I believe, is because of my decision to focus on many of these microaggressions that Jean experiences, these subtle moments between her and her family or between her and others when things are said that they don't even realize, they're not even aware that what they're saying is homophobic or something like that. Many of those experiences were drawn from my own experience, so I knew that by focusing on these microaggressions, as opposed to these bigger, , more overt and violent acts of homophobia that were part of these women's lives, I hoped to speak more to a contemporary audience that understands what it feels like to be "other" in some way. So, I would say some of that is deliberate, but also the reason it feels contemporary is because there are laws like this repeating all over the world.

I worked very closely with the production designer, the director of photography, the costume designer, and the hair and makeup designer to create a world that felt authentically from that time in northern England in the 1980s but also somehow timeless. And hopefully, it attempts to avoid some of the clichés of looking back at the 1980s that it seems we've adopted in television and film. I always aimed for a more classic approach, both in cinematography and production design. And Soraya, our production designer, was incredibly skilled and able to do a lot with very little. In northern England, there are still many places that seem frozen in time, so that worked in our favor. There were other little flourishes that were interesting to work on, like the club that is actually built inside a club that exists now and is largely a modern club that I used to go to when I was 21.

I am working on a couple of new films with BBC Films, which funded "Blue Jean," but I don't know. I'm writing, and it's very early, so I don't have much to say about them yet. And I don't know if they will be my next projects or not because I've been working on a film, the first feature film by Clémence Poésy, the French actress who has made some shorts and will direct her first feature film. She found a book called "Expectation" that she wanted to adapt, so I've been adapting it with her, and she will direct it. That project is much further along, and I think they are about to start casting.

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