Ttwo parrots, Polly and Perkins, are exhibited, locked in a gilt cage. A ring of spectators surrounds them as if in a zoo, staring at the birds in fascination. But the distressed birds have plucked out all their feathers, leaving them bare and yellow.
This scene, carefully rendered with doll-like puppets, is one of a series of captivating stop-motion animation sequences in The silent twinsout on September 16th. The biographical drama directed by Agnieszka Smochinska tells the story of June and Jennifer Gibbons (played by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrence, respectively), who gradually stopped talking to anyone but each other—and even then, only in private.
Leah Mondesire Simmons as young June Gibbons and Eva-Ariana Baxter as young Jennifer Gibbons in The Silent Twins
Jakub Kijowski—Focus Features
Later, in another imaginary scene, the titular twins sit smiling side by side at a book signing, each autographing their respective novels, waving their pens with gusto. Behind them, two life-size parrot dolls bob about contentedly – this time restored to a healthy shade of purple. In real life, both twins are writers, and Polly and Perkins first appear in one of Jennifer’s early stories.
Barbara Rupik heads the film’s stop-motion animation. “This story is both fascinating and disturbing,” Rupik said in an email to TIME, referring to both the whims and sorrows of two parrots raised to live in a zoo. “It is only through the eyes of the imagination that Polly and Perkins manage to open the door of the cage, a door to a fantastic world. It is, in a sense, their personification, an important allegory.
Two lives facing each other
June and Jennifer were born in 1963 to Barbadian parents who raised the girls and their three siblings in the United Kingdom: first in England and then in Wales. In 1971, when the twins were eight years old, they started a new school in south-west England.
“At eight or nine we started to suffer and stopped talking,” June said Hilton Als for A New Yorker in 1998, one of the few interviews they gave. “People called us names – we were the only black girls in school. Terrible names. They pulled our hair.”
In high school, the girls and their brother David experienced the same thing: they were again the only black students, and the racism and bullying only intensified. First they closed in on themselves, then, as they grew up, they began to experiment: with alcohol, drugs, boys, and finally a series of petty crimes that turned into arson. The twins served almost 12 years at Broadmoor, the notorious maximum security hospital for the criminally insane. Jennifer died in 1993 and today June lives a private life.
Leah Mondesire Simmons as young June Gibbons and Eva-Ariana Baxter as young Jennifer Gibbons
Jakub Kijowski—Focus Features
As their story was shared in the press by investigative journalist Marjorie Wallace, curious viewers realized that the twins were anomalies: the only black students in a predominantly white school and, as the film’s title emphasizes, uniquely silent. But as much as June and Jennifer Gibbons turned inward, they also stood out with what they created outside of themselves, an aspect of their lives The silent twins illuminates: they were naturally gifted artists.
“I was completely amazed at how mature they were, how imaginative, how creative: deeply, deeply, deeply creative,” says Smoczyńska, the director, in an interview. “And from that moment I knew I wanted to tell a lot more about them, as artists trying to communicate with the outside world.”
Unparalleled creative work
The only publicly available work of the twins is June’s Addicted to Pepsi-Cola— about a Malibu teenager who drinks 300 cans of Pepsi every day — which is now only available at a handful of libraries around the world. But Smoczyńska dove into research, starting with Wallace’s 1986 book The silent twinsfor which the author developed deep bonds with the Gibbons girls.
Through Wallace, the director has access to some of Jennifer’s drawings, letters from the twins to Wallace, journal entries, poetry, short stories, unpublished novels, and more. Smoczyńska invited her creative team—including Rupik, songwriters and composers Zuzanna Wronska and Marcin Macuk, and director of photography Jakub Kijowski—to research everything they could about the twins.
June and Jennifer – and their art –it became a push for the style, tone and genre of the film, a psychological drama driven by the emotions of the twins. It all came back to them.
Tamara Lawrence as Jennifer Gibbons and Leticha Wright as June Gibbons in The Silent Twins
Lukasz Back—Focus Features
“When I thought about them as artists, I also felt that was crucial for me [moment] it was the moment of transposition from their inner world to the outer world and from the outer world to their inner world,” says Smochinska. “Directors, when they come up with something, you start from this world that you live in. And then you go further, further, further, further, further into the inner world, into the imagination.”
The director was drawn to the juxtaposition of the twins’ similarities: for Smochinska, they were both mature and naive, tender and funny, withdrawn from the outside world and immersed in their shared inner world. She found the bridge between the two worlds in stop-motion animation, and the architect of that bridge was Barbara Rupik, the animator.
“I was looking for an artist who could resonate with their imagination and their sensibility,” says Smoczyńska. “And I knew that Barbara and her sensitivity, her creativity, her sense of humor, the way we resonate with the outside world — I knew she was the door, the portal to June and Jennifer’s imagination.”
Bringing Jennifer and June’s imaginations to life
Rupik won third place for Cinéfondation prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival for her animated short The little soul. In an interview she said of the film that one of her main goals “is to show repulsive matter in an attractive, mesmerizing way”—a sensibility that serves her well in The silent twins. (Rupik told TIME that he finds many of the twins’ works “both disturbing and beautiful.”)
Before their literary pursuits, June and Jennifer indulged their imaginations, building entire doll families, complete with successive generations and elaborate family trees—a fact Rupik loved.
“I think in some ways the way the girls think is somewhat close to the way they think in animation – especially if you consider their play with dolls,” Rupik says. “At some point the girls began to treat the handmade dolls as characters in their stories, the handmade side of their work merging with the writing.”
Letitia Wright as June Gibbons and Tamara Lawrence as Jennifer Gibbons in The Silent Twins
Lukasz Back—Focus Features
The silent twins does the same, fusing animation with the twins’ works. One of Jennifer’s unpublished novels, The fighter— which Smoczyńska considers her favorite — tells the story of a doctor, Dr. Pallenberg, who transplants the heart of his son’s family dog to keep it alive. To animate the story, Rupik combines fabrics, materials and ready-made scaled props with organic, fluid matter. “It was as if these rag dolls were sweating and shedding tears,” she says, “and the blood was running through their bodies.”
“Of course, everything is somehow filtered through my imagination,” Rupik continues. “But I did my best to create worlds that would be a blend of imagination and sensibility — mine and June’s and Jennifer’s.”
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