As their 1980s-set LGBTQ+ drama ’Blue Jean’ garners serious awards attention, filmmaker Georgia Oakley and producer Hélène Sifre tell Screen why they felt they had to tell this story.

Blue Jean

Source: Film Constellation

‘Blue Jean’

In 1988, and using a washing line picked up at a market in Clapham, south London, a group of lesbian activists abseiled from the public gallery into the House of Lords in the UK’s Parliament. They were protesting Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which had just been approved as law, heaved through by prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Section 28 aimed to stop councils and schools “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

In that same year, filmmaker Georgia Oakley was born in Oxfordshire. Almost three decades later, she would stumble on the act of bravery from the 1988 activists when scrolling for inspiration for her debut feature. “I was blindly looking for ideas on the internet. I hadn’t heard of Section 28 before,” says Oakley.

The filmmaker had already cut her teeth on a series of low-budget, under-the-radar shorts while working at a commercials company to keep money flowing in. Her breakthrough came when short Little Bird premiered at Tribeca in 2017, which she made for $35,000 (£30,000) thanks to crowdfunding and was headlined by Imelda Staunton.

A place on the 2017 edition of the British Film Institute (BFI) Flare mentorship programme — a scheme for emerging LGBTQ+ filmmakers — followed, as did meetings with Film4 and BBC Film.

During her first conversation with Eva Yates, then commissioner and now director of BBC Film, Oakley’s pitch of feature ideas fell flat. “I was going through everything and she was pushing them aside,” Oakley remembers. “I thought, ‘Shit, this is my chance, what should I say?’” She spilled out a Section 28 idea. “Eva said, ‘That’s your story.’”

Helene Sifre and Georgia Oakley

Source: iFeatures Team

Helena Sifre and Georgia Oakley

With two weeks to go until the deadline for the development funding scheme iFeatures, Oakley embarked on a whirlwind road trip with producing partner Hélène Sifre of Kleio Films. Oakley had been introduced to the London-based French producer by a mutual friend earlier in 2017, and the two had agreed to work together on their first features.

They travelled north to Newcastle, meeting women who had been affected by Section 28. “I could tell by speaking to these women that no-one had ever given them the time of day,” says Oakley. “They’d been on these personal battles with their own history through their whole lives.”

Oakley was familiar with Newcastle having attended university in the city. “I didn’t want to set [the film] in Manchester, because that was the queer capital at the time,” she notes. “I wanted a place with a queer scene that wasn’t quite as on-the-map as Manchester or London.”

Their feature was developed with the support of iFeatures and BBC Film (Oakley is now working on a new script idea with the funder, set in the US). After a first attempt to secure BFI funding was met with a rejection and several script notes, they resubmitted in February 2021 and were accepted for production funding in April 2021. The six-week Newcastle shoot took place in February and March 2022. UK sales agent Film Constellation came on board and, following a premiere at Venice, sold the title successfully around the world. Altitude is releasing in the UK in February 2023.

The perfect Jean

Blue Jean focuses on the titular Jean, a secondary school teacher desperate to conceal her lesbian identity at work. She fears her sexuality may be unveiled by a new pupil at school, Lois, who has become a regular fixture on the local queer scene.

Blue Jean_Film Still_46_Jean_Sports Hall copy

Source: Film Constellation

‘Blue Jean’

When it came to casting the lead character, Rosy McEwen — a Screen International Star of Tomorrow in 2022 — was proposed by casting director Shaheen Baig. “Jean can appear like she’s got a poker face, but we wanted the audience to see more was going on under the surface,” says Sifre. “Rosy was exactly that. There was warmth that came out from her tape, but also a stern exterior.”

Playing the key role of Lois is 19-year-old newcomer Lucy Halliday, who was found after an online call-out to drama groups, which led to 200 tapes being submitted. “Lucy was the standout,” says Sifre. “There was an obvious chemistry with Rosy.”

At the British Independent Film Awards, Blue Jean received 13 nominations, winning four awards: McEwen for lead performance, Kerrie Hayes (as Jean’s girlfriend Viv) for supporting performance, Oakley for debut screenwriter, and Baig for casting.

Oakley and McEwen’s connection goes back beyond Blue Jean — both share a first brush with the film industry. A 13-year-old McEwen made it to the final two for the lead role in Joe Wright’s 2007 Atonement, losing out to Saoirse Ronan.

As a teenager, Oakley landed a two-week job as an extra on the same period drama, playing a nurse, having never previously considered a career in film. “I’ve always been jealous of people who picked up a Super 8 camera when they were five and just knew [they wanted to be a filmmaker]. That wasn’t my experience. I bought my first Super 8 camera two weeks ago,” smiles the filmmaker.

“I wasn’t sure immediately that I wanted to direct, but I knew this was a world I was particularly fascinated by,” she continues. “I remember being on the Atonement set and opening all the cupboards and seeing everything inside had a special label and was created for that purpose, even though it was never going to be seen. It opened all these doors in my mind.”

Documentary photography from 1980s Newcastle and US features such as Paris, Texas provided the jumping-off point, when it came to creating Blue Jean’s own aesthetic. “People keep watching the film and saying, ‘It feels so like when I was there in the ’80s. I remember it just like that.’ But that’s surprising to me because we didn’t want to become overly preoccupied with that. Our production designer Soraya [Gilanni] kept saying, ‘I don’t give a fuck about realism,’” reflects Oakley.

The filmmaker also decided to consider a contemporary audience in the portrayal of homophobia. “There was definitely a direction we could have [taken] that involved a lot more on-the-nose violence,” she says. “We spoke to a lot of women who had experience of bricks through their windows and spray paint on their cars. I felt contemporary audiences would potentially have more of an in to emotionally understand this character [Jean] if I looked at micro-aggressions, which anyone with any experience of being othered will understand.”

Oakley feels a personal affinity with the character of Lois. “The [Section 28] law was not repealed until 2003. My experiences at school were not dissimilar to Lois. I wanted [the film] to have these dual perspectives on institutionalised homophobia and how it trickles down.”

Georgia Oakley, Helene Sifre


Georgia Oakley, Helene Sifre

In their research, Oakley and Sifre interviewed more than 50 people connected to Section 28. “Through speaking to them I saw such an overlap, even though we’re talking about something that happened 34 years ago, with their experiences between their work life and family that I could identify with as a queer person,” says Oakley.

“We are going back to some of these attitudes in many ways. You can see it in Florida, in the US, and in many countries,” adds Sifre, referring to the passing of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida in early 2022, which bans discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools with pupils under the age of 10.

“The film gives a warning about what it was like. History, unfortunately, is a bit cyclical,” she continues. “Periods of progress, followed by periods of conservatism and regression into previous ideas. Now, we’re on the brink of regression.”