The True Story Behind ‘The Silent Twins’

TTwo wo parrots Polly, and Perkins, have been displayed inside a gold-gilded enclosure. They are surrounded by a crowd of curious spectators, almost as though they were at a zoo. The birds are distressed and have stripped their feathers leaving them naked, sallow, and without any clothes.

The scene is carefully rendered with doll-like puppets. It’s one of many captivating stop-motion animation scenes. The Silent TwinsSeptember 16. The biographical drama from director Agnieszka Smoczyńska tells the story of June and Jennifer Gibbons (played by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance, respectively), who gradually stopped speaking to anyone other than each other—and even then only in private.

Leah Mondesir Simmons as young June Gibbons and Eva-Arianna Baxter as young Jennifer Gibbons in 'The Silent Twins' (Jakub Kijowski—Focus Features)

Leah Mondesir Simmons plays young June Gibbons, and Eva-Arianna Bxter is young Jennifer Gibbons.

Jakub Kijowski—Focus Features

In another imagined scene, the twins are smiling together at a signing. Each autographs a copy of their novel, and then they flourish their pen with enthusiasm. Behind them, two life-size parrot puppets sway contentedly—this time restored to a healthy purple hue. In real life, both twins were writers, and Polly and Perkins first appeared in one of Jennifer’s early stories.

The film’s stop-motion animation was directed by Barbara Rupik. “This story is simultaneously charming and unsettling,” Rupik says in an email to TIME, referencing at once the whimsy and sorrow of two parrots brought up to live in a zoo. “Only through the eyes of imagination Polly and Perkins are able to open the cage’s door, a gateway to a fantasy world. It is, in a sense, their personification, an important allegory.”

Two lives linked by love

June and Jennifer, both from Barbados, were born 1963 to Barbadian mothers. The girls and their three sisters were raised in England first and then in Wales. When the twins turned eighteen, their school moved to southwest England.

“Eight or nine, we started suffering, and we stopped talking,” June told Hilton Als for the New YorkerIn 1998 they only gave one interview. “People called us names—we were the only Black girls in school. Terrible names. They pulled our hair.”

Secondary school was the same for the two girls, David and Emily. They were again the only Black students and there was more bullying and racism. At first, the girls retreated inside themselves. As they grew older, however, they experimented with alcohol, drugs and boys. Eventually, a number of minor crimes led to an increase in arson. Broadmoor, the notorious hospital for the mentally ill with maximum security, was home to the twins for almost 12 years. Jennifer was killed in 1993. June is still living a private lifestyle.

Leah Mondesir Simmons as young June Gibbons and Eva-Arianna Baxter as young Jennifer Gibbons (Jakub Kijowski—Focus Features)

Leah Mondesir Simmons is young June Gibbons, and Eva-Arianna Bxter is young Jennifer Gibbons

Jakub Kijowski—Focus Features

As their story was shared in the press by investigative journalist Marjorie Wallace, curious onlookers came to know the twins as anomalies: the only Black students in predominantly white schools and, as the movie’s title emphasizes, uniquely silent. June Gibbons, Jennifer Gibbons, turned inward. But they were also proud of what they made, which was a part of their lives. The Silent TwinsIt was their natural talent as artists that illuminated.

“I was totally amazed at how mature they were, how full of imagination, how creative: deeply, deeply, deeply creative,” says Smoczyńska, the director, in an interview. “And from this moment, I knew that I wanted to tell much more about them, as artists who try to communicate with the outside world.”

A remarkable collection of original creative work

The only publicly available work by either of the twins is June’s Pepsi-Cola addict—about a teenager from Malibu who drinks 300 cans of Pepsi-Cola every day—which is now available at just a handful of libraries around the world. But Smoczyńska dove into research, starting with Wallace’s 1986 book The Silent TwinsThe author also wrote the book, and developed deep friendships with Gibbons girls.

Through Wallace, the director was able to access some of Jennifer’s drawings, letters from the twins to Wallace, diary entries, poetry, short stories, unpublished novels, and more. Smoczyńska invited her creative team—including Rupik, songwriter and composer Zuzanna Wronska and Marcin Macuk, and director of photography Jakub Kijowski—to study everything they could about the twins.

June and Jennifer—and their art—became the impetus for the style, tone, and genre of the movie, a psychological drama guided by the twins’ emotions. They were the catalyst for everything.

Tamara Lawrance as Jennifer Gibbons and Letitia Wright as June Gibbons in 'The Silent Twins' (Lukasz Bak—Focus Features)

Tamara Lawrance plays Jennifer Gibbons; Letitia Wright portrays June Gibbons.

Lukasz Bak—Focus Features

“When I thought about them as artists, I also felt, for me, the crucial [moment] was the moment of the transposition from their inner world into the outside world, and from the outside world into their inner world,” Smoczyńska says. “Directors, when they invent something, you start from this world, where you live. And then you go farther, farther, farther, farther, farther in the inner world, to the imagination.”

The director was drawn to the juxtapositions within the twins’ similarities: To Smoczyńska, they were simultaneously mature and naïve, tender and funny, withdrawn from the outside world and immersed in their shared inner world. Barbara Rupik was the animator who built the bridge between these two worlds using stop-motion animation.

“I was looking for an artist who could resonate with their imagination and with their sensitivities,” Smoczyńska says. “And I knew that Barbara and her sensitivity, creativity, sense of humor, the way we resonate with the outside world—I knew that she’s the door, the gateway to June and Jennifer’s imaginations.”

Animating Jennifer and June’s imaginations

Rupik won third place for the Cinéfondation prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019 with her animated short The Little Soul. In an interview about the film, she said that one of her major goals “was to show repulsive matter in an attractive, mesmerizing way”—a sensibility that served her well in The Silent Twins. (Rupik told TIME she found many of the twins’ works to be “both unsettling and beautiful.”)

Before their literary pursuits, June and Jennifer indulged their imaginations by building entire families of dolls, complete with successive generations and complex family trees—a fact that Rupik loved.

“I think that in some sense the girls’ way of thinking, somewhere, is close to the way of thinking in animation—especially if we consider their play with dolls,” Rupik says. “At some point, the girls began to treat the handmade dolls as the characters in their stories, the handcrafted side of their work merged with the writing.”

Letitia Wright as June Gibbons and Tamara Lawrance as Jennifer Gibbons in 'The Silent Twins' (Lukasz Bak—Focus Features)

Letitia Wright plays June Gibbons; Tamara Lawrance is Jennifer Gibbons.

Lukasz Bak—Focus Features

The Silent Twins does the same thing, fusing animation with the twins’ artwork. One of Jennifer’s unpublished novels, Pugilist—which Smoczyńska counts as her favorite—tells the tale of a physician, Dr. Pallenberg, who transplants the heart of the family dog into his son to keep him alive. Rupik used a combination of fabrics, materials and pre-made props, as well organic liquid matter, to create the animated story. “As if these rag dolls were sweating and shedding tears,” she says, “and blood was flowing 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 fusion of imagination and sensibility—mine and June’s and Jennifer’s.”

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