As Belgium’s submission for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar race, the Lukas Dhont-directed drama Girl tells the story of Lara (Victor Polster), a 15-year-old girl born in a boy’s body committed to becoming a professional ballerina. The film, which is Dhont’s debut feature and based on a real-life woman named Nora, premiered at Cannes and won the Camera d’Or and earned Polster a Best Performance nod. It was also acquired by Netflix for North and Latin America. During an Awardsline screening, Dhont talked about the journey of making Girl and addressed the sensitive topic of transgender representation in film.

The seed of Girl was planted nearly a decade ago when Dhont read a newspaper article about a young trans girl named Nora who wanted to be a ballerina but was not allowed in the girl’s class. Dhont approached Nora about doing a documentary about it. They stayed in contact over the years and the idea went from being a documentary to a narrative feature film.

“What was so good about making it fiction rather than a documentary was that it was not only something for me or for the audience but something for her,” said Dhont. “She could use the film as a tool to talk about something that had happened in her past, but as a tool to let it go — and that was something very important to us.”

Dhont worked with Nora to write the film, but she didn’t want her name to be attached to it. In the beginning of the process, he said she wanted to “stay in the shadows.”

“She would write with us but she wouldn’t want her name attached because she was at a point in her life where although she was honest with the world and herself, she was at a moment in her life where she really wanted to fit in,” he pointed out.

Nora didn’t want to stand out because that would lead to confrontation — and Dhont respected and related to her wishes. At the time, he was 18 and the project became more personal to him. “I wasn’t open about my sexuality,” said Dhont. “For a very long time, I tried to fit in a heteronormative society. I recognized that need to fit in when she was talking to me.”

But as the project evolved, so did Nora. She became more vocal about herself and accepted her identity. She had a hand in casting Polster in the role. As his acting debut, Polster was nervous that he would not do her justice, but when she remained on set during his performance, that’s when he knew she believed in him.

Transgender issues are a hot-button topic as of late and marginalized groups are watching Hollywood like a hawk when it comes to authentic representation. With Girl, Dhont is aware that he cast a cisgender male in a trans role (they found him in a genderless casting). He is also aware of the “diverse reactions” the film would bring — particularly with the trans community.

“For a part of the trans community, this is a film that is more difficult,” he admits. Dhont says that he is open to having a conversation with anyone regardless of their opinion of the film. “I like that dialogue. I like to talk about the idea of representation and the future of it. For me, that’s the most exciting part about it — to share a dialogue with someone that can sometimes have a different opinion. That makes me learn as a person and hopefully a better director.”