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Female Filmmakers in Focus: Georgia Oakley on Blue Jean

Anchored by a star-making turn from Rosy McEwen in the titular role, the new lesbian drama “Blue Jean” was inspired by a news article writer/director Georgia Oakley read in 2018, just before the 30th anniversary of the UK’s Section 28. The term describes a series of laws that prohibited the "promotion of homosexuality" by local authorities across Britain. 

Introduced by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, these laws impacted school curriculum, LGBTQ student groups, and queer teachers and school staff in particular, and were in effect from 1988 to 2000 in Scotland and from 1988 to 2003 in England and Wales. Oakley quickly realized that she had spent most of her life living within their effects, which prompted her to question how they had affected her and eventually led her to explore the early days after they were enacted through a layered character study of a woman whose life is directly impacted by them. 

Set in 1988, McEwen plays Jean, a PE teacher working in the northern city of Newcastle, who, while out to her family and in a burgeoning relationship with a woman named Viv (Kerrie Hayes), must hide sexuality while at work. When she runs into one of her students at the gay bar she and Viv frequent with their friends, her carefully separated personal and professional lives collide. The pressure from the newly enacted Section 28 laws, along with Jean’s own residual internalized homophobia, causes her to make a series of rash decisions out of fear and panic that may have disastrous ramifications in every facet of her life. 

Brought to life through McEwen’s subtle, cerebral performance, Oakley’s film explores the psychological toll discriminatory legislature takes on those it negatively impacts and holds a mirror to the past to deftly reflect the dangers of a history that repeats itself. 

For this month’s Female Filmmakers in Focus column, spoke to Oakley over Zoom about researching the human impact of Section 28, the circular nature of history, and the strength found in queer communities.

I felt the way that you humanized the impact of Section 28 was really unique. What was the process of developing this story to center so directly on the personal experience of living under the early days of this law?

It began with me stumbling across a newspaper article about Section 28 in 2018, which actually was the 30-year anniversary. Just before the anniversary, I came across a newspaper article about some women who had abseiled from the House of Lords public gallery into the House of Lords to demonstrate against Section 28. And at that moment, I had not previously heard of Section 28, despite the fact that it had been a law for 15 years and despite the fact that I had been at school or in education for almost all of that time. 

The development started with a kind of unraveling of that experience and thinking about how that law affected my life without me knowing that it existed and being outraged at myself. At that time, I was living in London. I was very much a part of a queer community, and I wasn't the only one who didn't know this part of our history. There was this compulsion to tell the story on that basis. 

But moreover, I've been talking a lot about the themes of the film. Notably the way that we wear different masks in these different parts of our lives. Or the way that coming out is often perceived as this one-time thing, but actually, in my experience, it has been something that you kind of live every day and that changes shape depending on where you're at in your life at that moment.

I was talking a lot about those themes to Hélène Sifre, our producer. We were looking to work together on something at that point, and then I discovered this newspaper article. So it was a series of things conspiring at the same time. 

I began reading firsthand accounts of women who had worked as PE teachers in the late '80s and early '90s when the law had come in, which I'd found online, and then we subsequently went to meet those women. Some of them became a huge part of building the story. But through reading, initially, their testimonies online, I realized that there was an opportunity to interrogate certain aspects of my own experience as a queer woman, but through this extremely heightened lens of what they had experienced at that time. 

I definitely saw overlaps, and it definitely didn't feel like it was a historical time capsule of a story that no longer had any relevance. I felt like there was a huge crossover with my own experiences, but because of the scenario, the law, being in a school, all of that being a PE teacher, not a history teacher, all of those things meant that their experiences were particularly heightened. And because of that, it enabled me to look at these things that I was already thinking about in my own life and kind of transpose them onto a story of a fictional woman, but who is an amalgamation of different women that we met during the research phase.

You’ve mentioned in a few interviews how, unfortunately, history seems to be circular. As you were developing this film, did you hope audiences would see the parallels between this law and the laws that are being enacted today?

We were definitely aware of the parallels. We came up against some pushback when we were pitching the story and trying to get financing for the film. I think people thought that it would be this kind of relic of a forgotten moment that no one cared about anymore. So during the first round of funding in 2018, we made a big effort to show parallels with things that were happening at that particular time in Florida and the UK. They had introduced into the curriculum something called No Outsiders. It was a new initiative to teach young kids about the existence of queer people, but also to talk about single parents and basically how not all families look the same. There was a huge pushback in the UK with people taking their kids out of school. Hundreds and thousands of kids are being taken out of school as a protest against this new initiative. 

So we really pushed those parallels because we felt like it was glaringly obvious that, not just in the UK, but globally, there were so many parallels with Section 28, all over the place. And we felt that we had to push that in order to make people see that the story was relevant today. I don't think any of us could have expected how things have unraveled in the past five years since then, to the point where I believe no one could watch the film and not think about the parallels with things that are happening right now. 

The actual language that is used to describe the trans community and nonbinary community pretty much all over the world is so similar. Having done such extensive research and looked up every single newspaper article that was written about lesbian women at that time, I see those parallels set so clearly, and it's extremely harrowing and depressing. We were aware, and it was a part of why we wanted to tell the story, but we weren't prepared for how that would shift over the period of time of making a film.

One aspect of the film that I thought was really interesting was the contrast between Jean watching “Blind Date” on TV at home, which really normalizes heterosexual dating and behavior, with her finding a copy of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness at her girlfriend’s apartment. “Blind Date” is just out there, available for everyone to watch, but she has to practically stumble into representation with this book.

That was one of my main motivations for telling the story, to think about the barrage of heteronormative messaging that everybody is subjected to. Not just Jean, but Sammy, the little boy. The whole idea is that we all grow up in the same vacuum where we are shown a certain type of experience over and over and over and over and over to the point where it doesn't matter if it doesn't even matter if you experience otherness in your immediate family circle, it still appears to be wrong because of all of this other messaging. 

I have conversations about that with queer friends all the time. I have a stepdaughter, and she often makes comments that you wouldn't expect from somebody who has essentially grown up with two mums. You'll be like, “Why did you just say that?” and she'll say, “Oh, I've watched a thing on Netflix,” and you're like, “Okay, yeah.” So, I was thinking a lot about that and thinking about how I grew up in a household where we watched “Blind Date” every Saturday night, and no one thought anything of it. 

When I was going back through the “Blind Date” archives, I didn't expect to find such ... it feels sort of almost like comedy, because the misogyny is just so pronounced. It's in every single episode. It just makes the spine tingle. I wanted to think about how, essentially, from my experiences growing up during Section 28, the main takeaway was that if you remove all role models and you remove any conversation around homosexuality, it just sort of ceases to exist in your world. 

But then all of these messages get inside you without your permission. You just get hit over the head with it every day, and you don't even notice the billboards you’re driving past. Or articles in the newspaper. At the time as well, it was a one-newspaper kind of time. If you were working in a school, there was a newspaper that that school decided that they were subscribed to and whatever was the headline that day was what everybody read. It helped shape public opinion. So if something was written—and there were so many headlines that were like “Loony lesbian ... blah, blah, blah.” If that's what everyone's reading at lunch, you know, and you're there amongst them, how is that different from the way we experience news now and that kind of thing?

I love the way the film shows the importance of communal spaces and, towards the end, collective aid and how really, to thrive, you need that community, you need that space. I grew up in a rural town in the '90s and had one friend who was queer, but you didn't talk about it back then, but we had each other, and I think that helped us. The way you show the multiple different ways of having that community in this film reminded me of that time in my life. Can you talk a bit about the importance of showing the various ways that queer people find community?

One thing I was thinking about was the absence of queer spaces. When I came out, queer spaces in the UK were beginning to die out, and everything was moving online. So I was thinking a lot about that. And I guess I felt some nostalgia. But then, obviously, when I was speaking to women who had lived this experience, some of them shared with us things like their diary entries of exactly how it felt to walk down the beer-soaked stairs into the windowless basement. That was always the face that was given to that kind of thing. 

So we had these amazing first-hand accounts and people to speak to and research to do. We spoke to loads of people in the Northeast who were part of the queer community in the '80s to get more of a sense of what that had been like. I never wanted to make a film that was without hope. And as the research phase was so extensive, yes, we focused on speaking to teachers and understanding the nuance of that experience, but actually a lot more of the people we spoke to, I would say like 70% of the people we spoke to, were actually involved in the more activism side of things and helped organize the marches against Section 28 and lived in housing co-ops and at that time.

In London, when I started writing it, I was living on a street that had once been almost entirely lesbian housing co-ops. So I had been doing a lot of research into that, anyway, just out of interest, because our upstairs neighbor was a really kind of amazing woman who'd been part of Greenham Common, and there are all these amazing pictures of her. She would tell us about what the street used to be like. So I was looking into it, and it just felt like after all of that, after all the people we've spoken to, it felt like it would not have felt authentic to have told that story, to tell the story of Jean without touching on the fight, and the community aspect of what it meant to be queer at that moment in time. 

Writing was often a kind of juggling act to try and find a way to tell the story whilst touching on that, but not ever taking too much of a segue into that world. It was difficult. Sometimes I wish there were more scenes that we'd shot in those spaces, but it was always a portrait drama. And it was always meant to be a story that interrogated one woman's life and choices. I didn't want her to be front and center in that world. I wanted to explore the difficulty of stepping into that new community, but not being fully accepted. Then sort of feel not queer enough for that space, but sort of too queer for the heteronormative world that she's living in. That was the experience of the women we spoke to, and none of them were able to get involved in the marches and all of those things. So I wanted to try and touch on that and bring it in. 

It was also something that I felt was reflected in the world around me in terms of the lesbian relationships that I knew. There was often one in the couple who was more, I don't know, let's say flag flying for lack of a better expression, always wanting to kind of fight the fight. And then one person who was maybe a little bit more reserved and didn't want to have their identity politicized just on the basis of their queerness. I always thought that that was an interesting battle because both are right, but there's nothing wrong with either of those things, but when put together, it creates friction.

Which brings me to Rosy's performance. She's so great. She does such a good job of showing both the internalized homophobia but also the longing for community. It's a very internal performance. And I'd love to hear how you found her and what you were hoping she would bring to the role.

With the script, this was a very internal story, and there was a lot of description. I think some people who read it found it hard to truly access the character. But I was always sure of who Jean was, and I was always convinced that she would have certain qualities that would mean that, despite everything that she does and despite the decisions that she makes, the audience would be with her on that journey. But you know, it's easier said than done, and when we started casting, it was quite a nerve-wracking experience because I realized how much of the film was going to rest on this central performance. 

It was quite a traditional casting process. We received tapes, and Rosy's tape was one of the first that we received. I wasn't aware of her work before and didn't know how old she was or where she was from or anything like that. Which I remember felt very liberating, despite the fact that I was really cross about it being lockdown and not being able to have a traditional face-to-face casting. I pressed play on her tape, and she had a blue backdrop, which I've since discovered is what her agents use for all types of their clients, but I clicked on it, and it was this blue backdrop and her blue eyes, and she started speaking as Jean, with Jean’s accent, which is not her own. Energetically, I just felt that she had understood through reading the script, never having spoken to me, that she had really understood who that character was. Which was quite a feat, really, because there was so much to the character, at least that I felt there was, and so I knew that any conversations that we would have would only elevate that initial response that she'd had to the script. 

It was really exciting because we then were able to come at it from the same place initially and then build Jean together and figure out some of the nuances. I'd always said that it was really a portrait of what happens when you move the character from one place to another. How does she feel? What's going on internally for that character when you move between these spaces? So we had to work that out together. 

She blew us away every day. It was an incredibly intense shoot with no breaks ever, and she was in every scene. A lot of the scenes are very emotional and demanding for any actor. And she just blew it out of the park. And also lead by example. We had a lot of younger actors who had never performed in front of a camera before, and so having Rosy there as their guide was also really special.

You start with such a strong image of her changing her hair and the idea that she has a little bit of her identity out, that's acceptable but still signifies who she is to those who know what it means. I thought that was really powerful. When did you decide to start with that imagery?

The beginning of the film changed many times. I finally landed on that image. I just felt like I needed something like that to allow us a gradual introduction to the character, not just the hair dyeing, but also her in her own space watching “Blind Date” and the reaction that she has when this light goes on. And all the rest of it. I just felt like the audience almost understands more. Well, the audience definitely understands more about that character in those first few moments of the film, I think then, and she does at that point, and that was really important to me. I've read some funny things online about how it's basically a checklist of things that queer women can relate to, short hair, dyed hair, and having a cat.

I had this bleached blonde mohawk for a while, actually, and that was the one time in my life when people didn't question if I was actually queer because of my hair. 

Rosy and I had long conversations about the hair because Rosy had very long hair when I met her. I had to explain why the hair was non-negotiable and so much a part of Jean. It also signifies something deeper for her. You see later when her sister says that she preferred her hair longer or whatever. Something that I feel like I've had said to me about 500 times.

What do you hope the audience comes away with when they're finished watching the film?

I hope people come away with a feeling of empowerment. I want to feel like the film is somehow my contribution to an ongoing fight. It was incredibly draining over five years to try and get the film made and then travel with the film. I hope that people feel in some way roused by it to take up the baton and continue with the fight because that was definitely our intention when we started developing it, to contribute in the small way that we could to some kind of ongoing conversation around queer rights. 

Are there any female filmmakers who inspire you or who you think people should know about?

I’ve definitely got loads of female filmmakers who have inspired me. Lynne Ramsay would be one. Chantal Akerman, Lucrecia Martel. There's some great filmmakers coming through. I would say Charlotte Regan. Her film “Scrapper” was just at Sundance. We are part of the same cohort of filmmakers in a thing called iFeatures, which is a funding scheme in the UK. So “Scrapper” and “Blue Jean” were developed alongside each other. It's been great to be able to share the experience as peers with our films being developed at the same time, in the same program, and to have been able to check in with each other about how that's been. There's quite a few of us who have come through at the same time. [“Aftersun” director] Charlotte Wells as well.

"Blue Jean" will be available in theaters on June 9th.  

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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