Estibalitz Urresola: “Basque has a narrative value in the film”
Euskara. Kultura. Mundura.
Estibalitz Urresola Solaguren (Llodio, 1984) is a Basque filmmaker. With over a decade of experience in the audiovisual industry directing a wide range of genres and formats, including short films and feature films, Urresola understands that audiovisuals are a dynamic process of relationship-building, continuous learning, and transformation. Her films include ´Nor nori nork´ (2019), ´Polvo Somos´ (2020) and ´Cuerdas´ (2021). Her most recent project, the feature film ´20.000 especies de abejas’ (20,000 Species of Bees, 2023), is enjoying great success at international festivals and in cinemas.
Set in the Basque Country, ‘20.000 especies de abejas’ is a portrayal of a young kid called Coco (Sofía Otero). The film addresses gender identity, transgender issues in childhood and the diversity of family and social structures, among other topics.
The premiere of Urresola´s film at the Berlinale International Film Festival was a milestone for Basque cinema. It was the first Basque film to compete Berlinale’s Official Selection, where Sofía Otero won the Silver Bear for best performance. The film went on to win several other awards, including the Golden Biznaga at the Malaga Film Festival. The film recently won the Grand Jury Award at the Seattle International Film Festival.
We spoke with Estibalitz Urresola about her latest work, filmmaking in the Basque language and the internationalisation of Basque cinema.
Looking back, the film ´20,000 Species of Bees´ had its first public showing at the Berlinale, where it was a great success. What was it like in Berlin?
The experience at the Berlinale was fantastic. It was truly a gift. We’d never dreamed of competing in the official selection, and that alone was our most important prize. The week was amazing. The press reception was very good. During the interviews, it was evident that the interviewees had appreciated the film’s multiple layers, which led to several excellent discussions at the cinematographic level.
The day of premiere was one of the most exciting days of my life. I didn´t expect such a warm reception from the audience or such enthusiastic applause at the end. That’s very important. When you present a film you’re really vulnerable because of the uncertainty. You have no idea about the journey of the film. And you don´t know how it’s going to connect with an audience that, at first, we thought was so different, so far away. But seeing how the audience experienced the film was so nice. Sometimes they laughed, at other times there was tension... When you get to see all this in situ, you understand that there are no borders between people, countries or cultures, and that emotions are a universal language.
What was it like to work with Sofía Otero?
Working with Sofia was a pleasure. From our very first session I saw that we had a very clear transparent channel of communication and that it was easy to talk to her about emotions and serious issues. Other actors consistently praised her easy-to-work-with nature, highlighting her exceptional acting abilities, and acknowledging that we were lucky to have such a highly skilled actress on board. She quickly assimilated both technical and artistic instructions. Sofía was nine years old on the set and the rest of the actors found it particularly easy to work with her. Sofía brought a lot to the scene.
Describe for us the process of creating and developing the character of Lucía.
The way I worked with Sofia was special. I didn´t want to give her the script beforehand, to a certain extent I wanted to guarantee the freshness that she brought. If she had studied her lines, she probably wouldn´t have given her character that edge. We had several sessions together where I would tell her the key ideas of the main layers of the screenplay, so that she’d understand where each of the relationships were going. While I talked to her, Sofia would draw pictures of the relationships. She created a sort of drawn summary of the script and, day by day, we worked on the different layers. In the sequences we left gaps, and when we worked on that layer another day, we’d fill in the gaps through her drawings. It took us a long time to work this way, but I think it was an interesting formula for her to fill in all the missing parts with her imagination and her own emotional universe.
The film uses Basque, French and Spanish. How did you decide to combine the three languages? Does it influence the film or have anything to do with the narrative?
Yes, of course. I wanted to make a film about diversity, and languages are also a testimony to the different identities in the film. The Basque Country refers especially to cultural identities, to the territory separated by a boundary where Basque, Spanish and French coexist.
And in this case, Basque has a narrative value in the film. The main character uses Basque to avoid gender, because the Basque language has this beautiful peculiarity. Through the character of the beekeeper, the Basque language also allowed us to revive a beautiful piece of Basque culture. This passage tells how in the Basque Country bees were considered sacred and how they were attributed with tight family relationships. This passage was included in a Basque ballad, and I wanted to use it in a narratively in the film. Going back to the theme borders, my intention was to use the concept of a border to represent not only a geopolitical boundary but also to symbolize the emotional and psychological barriers that this family must overcome.
Cannes, Berlin, Málaga… You’re taking your work to the some of the world’s most prestigious venues.
It’s so gratifying for me to see that these latest films are travelling around the world. Particularly because the films I make are related to social issues, and it’s a perfect opportunity to spread these conversations and reach as many people as possible. Being able to present my work in these places guarantees the film a wider audience. The presentation of ´Cuerdas´ at the Cannes Film Festival or ´20,000 Species of Bees´ at the Berlinale puts them in the spotlight. And other programmers worldwide can notice them or become interested in taking them to other countries. That´s the biggest victory for me: to see that the message I want to convey is spreading.
From your perspective over the years, how do you see the dissemination of Basque cinema?
Once a film is finished, it’s no longer yours ‑ it belongs to the viewers. That sharing gives me a great deal of satisfaction. All this is the result of a long journey. I finished my degree 17 years ago and since then I’ve been working in the audiovisual industry, either in production, television, cinema or even creating my own work, but I’m only just seeing things blossom now.
I am uncertain how much the gender gap has contributed to the delay in reaching this moment, which has taken us many years to achieve. There are studies that show that women filmmakers make their first feature film at a much later age than men. I imagine that there is a structural problem linked to the culture of our society and to the domains that women occupy. In recent years there has been a lot of talk about the achievements of women filmmakers, conversations that certainly weren’t there before. But this is also the result of several initiatives. For example, in the Basque Country, the NOKA project is an artist residency for women filmmakers; the Ikusmira Berriak residency, which from the outset has had a criterion of parity in its selection of candidates; the Aukera programme organised by the association of Basque filmmakers, HEMEN, and other institutions and organisations that award grants have also highlighted played an important role. So, women filmmakers are now experiencing this unique moment. I believe that Basque cinema is expanding both in terms of its reach and the quality of technical professionals involved. Moreover, this presents an opportunity to draw foreign productions to our country, which enhances and diversifies our filmmaking industry.
It´s evident that the measures taken in support of culture within this vast ecosystem have a discernible impact that can be observed in the medium term. This should motivate us to continue pursuing long-term goals that will yield even more accomplishments and results in the future. The ultimate impact is a richer society, a society that is becoming more democratic and diverse, where people of different ages, genders and socio-economic levels have the chance to tell their stories and create narratives.