A Powerful Story

Lukas Dhont’s feature directorial debut Girl centres on the transgender teenager Lara (Victor Polster), who is determined to become a professional ballerina. The culmination of the physical and emotional pressure of her training regime at a prestigious dance school, and the slow progress of her medical transition, challenges her determination of fulfilling her aspirations. Dhont discusses the personal resonance of his protagonist’s story, the cinematic storytelling as an intrusive act and the universality of the film’s thematic centre.

ASFF: Why have you pursued film as a means of creative expression? 
The spark for me to become a filmmaker came when I was nine years old. My mum has always been a big cinema goer, she’s actually what we call a cinephile, and so she talked to me and my brother a lot about cinema and the impact films had on her. I just remember seeing that effect a film could have on someone and feeling that I wanted to do that myself. 

I was given a camera for my communion and started directing my mom and my brother. I told them what to do and that desire to visualise situations and characters, to try to create emotions and moments became bigger and bigger, and that ended up with me making Girl

ASFF: Did this desire to provoke emotions in the viewer influence the route that you’ve taken?
In 2009 I came across an article in a Belgian newspaper about a young trans woman who wanted to become a ballerina. I was immediately drawn to her and what she stood for – the desire to fit into this very gender specific, binary world of the classical dance. So I felt that character, environment and visual was something I wanted to put onscreen, and there was such an emotional impact to that desire and character that I felt like making it my first film, because I also felt that it was a very personal thing for me. 

You had this 15-year-old that was able to be the truest version of herself at that age, and at the age of eighteen when I read that article, I had this feeling that I had spent so much time trying to fit in rather than to stand out. I just had an extraordinary admiration for her, and so all those things led me to make this film.

ASFF: The camera is a powerful tool for the filmmaker, and so how did you employ it to communicate the ideas as well as the emotions that give the characters their impetus?
In the films that I make, I allow an audience to become really close to a character… and in a way to be with that character in moments that they would not be allowed to in real life. I see the camera as an intruder, but I always try to look for the right distance, to look for a respectful way to visualise someone’s very personal world.

With the camera in Girlspecifically, we decided to stay very close because Victor’s face is just so mesmerising, and translates all of the emotions that are happening inside. So by staying close to that face I feel we stay close to the internal world. But I think the interest that you have as a filmmaker is in human beings and what other lives would be like. It’s a very human thing to wonder what someone else’s life looks like the moment that they are in their apartments, and I think that sparks imagination, and is inspiring. Then with the camera as a filmmaker, you give the audience the privilege to be there in moments that they would not necessarily otherwise be allowed to be.

ASFF: The audience are also authors of a film, which is important in the context of Girl. It entertains through provocation and requires an active audience. How do you respond to this?
Yeah, I think you are absolutely right. From the moment someone sees a film it exists because it’s in that confrontation between an audience member and the material presented that it exists. The team brings our vision to the screen, but every pair of eyes that looks at it has a different experience and interpretation. A film like Girl– about this character and especially this world that we wanted to address through the ballet – this idea of roles for men and women, of course it’s a film that’s a topic, with a message. It’s a film in which we deliberately let the character go through this physical fatigue of trying to fit the mould, of trying to fit in, and we try to have the audience go along on that physical road with her. 

I very much think this film is intended to have a physical effect and confront the audience with that physicality. I hope in that sense the film becomes sensorial and that your senses are awoken by what you see, hear or experience. It’s not a film that you’re completely drawn in, that you forget time and other things. It’s not purely entertaining like you say, it’s confrontational.

ASFF: The scene in which the ballet teacher tells Lara that there are some things we can’t control, change or overcome is a powerful moment within the film. Can you discuss?
All of those elements in the film were very deliberate, though everyone when they hear that has a different take on what is said. Of course in the world of the ballet, everything is about the manipulation of the body, of trying to put it in a form, to use and to work with the body in a certain way. It’s an extremely confrontational world for the character and for us as human beings, because we are confronted with both the reality, and what we want the reality to be. This relationship with the body is universal and it taps into the core relationship in everyone’s lives, which is the relationship we have with ourselves. There’s not a more crucial relationship than that one. This makes for a very universal theme that a lot of people respond to through their own backgrounds, and in their own personal way.

Girl is released in theatres and On Demand by Curzon Artificial Eye on Friday 15 March. For more information visit: www.curzonartificialeye.com/girl.

Paul Risker

1. All stills from