20,000 Species of Bees – Finding a true self

“Can I die and be reborn as a girl?”

In Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren’s 20,000 Species of Bees, an eight-year-old who is  experiencing gender dysphoria searches for an identity. The child’s mother has her own identity issues to deal with. How each sees themselves and how the world around them sees them creates both conflict and a chance to discover a new perspective.

Cocó’s (Sofía Otero) real name is Aitor. Her [I’ll use feminine pronouns for Cocó throughout] long hair and loose clothing are not really clues to her gender. It is when we see her urinating standing up that we know she is genetically male. The use of the name Cocó may reflect a recognition of this gender ambivalence. She is ambivalent about the name as well. She doesn’t want a boy’s name, but Cocó isn’t her identity either.

She, her mother Ane (Patricia López Arnaiz) and siblings return to Ane’s hometown in the Basque Country. At first she wants to avoid being around other children. Perhaps it is shyness, but she also expresses being ashamed. Her grandmother hears the local women telling her what a beautiful granddaughter she has, but corrects them frequently that it is a grandson.

Meanwhile, Ane is seeking to reignite her artistic spirit. Her father was a successful sculptor. She wants to be one as well, but is unsure of her talent. Perhaps if she makes something worthwhile she can get a teaching position.

As Cocó struggles with her sense of shame and being different, she spends time with her great-aunt, who keeps bees. Cocó is afraid of them at the start, but her aunt shows her how beneficial and useful they are. They make honey and wax (used for candles and sculpting), and even using bee stings to heal. She explains the different roles of the bees in the hive, and asks Cocó to relate those roles to her family.

Cocó’s parents are aware that she is uncomfortable, and don’t push a gender identity on her, but they are also not really affirming. Her grandmother thinks the parents are overindulging her grandson. It is the aunt who understands the turmoil in Cocó’s life. Cocó is torn between the ways others see her and what she is convinced is who she is.

The film has lots of religious ideas sprinkled throughout. The family has come home for a baptism. Just as a name is given at baptism, Cocó gives herself a new name when swimming with a young girl friend (with whom she has swapped swimsuits).  It appears that Cocó’s parents are not religious, but the people they are visiting are. Cocó asks what faith is and learns that it is a conviction that goes beyond what can be seen. It is such a conviction that Cocó discovers within herself about who she is, and who she is becoming.

Just as bees are communal animals, so too are humans. Cocó is being told by many people who she is or is not. The way her siblings, parents, and wider family, and the larger community all see her can either affirm her or undermine her faith in her true self. Must she fit into a rigid social idea of gender, or will she find a new person within?

20,000 Species of Bees is in select theaters.

Photos courtesy of Film Movement.

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