Lukas Dhont’s feted debut feature Girl has been among the most talked about foreign language films of the year. The Belgian drama has also become a lightning rod for the growing discussion over on screen representation.

The film recounts the true story of a 15-year-old girl, born in the body of a boy, who dreams of becoming a ballerina. The movie won four prizes at Cannes including the prestigious Camera d’Or and was subsequently snapped up by Netflix and key arthouse buyers. It went on to score awards at a string of festivals, a European Film Award and a Golden Globe nomination.

There has been plenty of critical support for the film, with journalists calling it “sublime”, ‘riveting” and “deeply humane” and it has been glowingly received by its real life subject, trans dancer Nora Monsecour, who worked closely with filmmaker Dhont to bring it to screen.

Not all feel the same way, however. Girl has experienced some particularly stinging criticism from a number of trans critics, who have accused it of being a “danger to the transgender community”, “irresponsible”, “voyeuristic” and an example of “trans-trauma porn.”

One trans critic recently slammed the film in a trade publication, warning the Academy that a vote for Girl would damage the trans community and signal Hollywood regression. That critic got their wish yesterday when the film was surprisingly omitted from a nine-film Foreign Language Oscar shortlist.

For my money, Girl is a bracing, poignant and impressive debut featuring a gripping performance from its newcomer lead Victor Polster and strong support from Arieh Worthalter. I spoke to young Belgian director Dhont late last week about his film’s ambitions, the controversy it has provoked among trans critics and the growing waves of discontent over actors and directors taking on subjects they haven’t directly lived.

Deadline: Congratulations on Girl and its success. It has been quite a journey, ten years in the making. How did you come to the story?

Lukas Dhont: Thank you. Yes, I read an article in a Belgian newspaper in 2009 about a 15-year-old trans girl called Nora Monsecour who wanted to become a classically trained dancer. Her school at the time wouldn’t allow her to change from the boys’ to the girls’ class. I was immediately attracted to the story. The idea started from that moment, initially as a documentary. Nora didn’t want to be in front of the camera, however, so I started to write it as a fictional film. It was great to have her support. She is an amazing person.

Would you say the film is a personal to you?

Yes. When you write something and direct it, it can’t not be. There are elements of who I am in it. The reason I connected with this story in 2009 was for a very personal reason [Dhont has previously discussed the challenge he felt at the time coming to terms with his sexuality]. Of course, it’s largely not an autobiographical film, however.

How did you cast the film?

We organized a genderless casting call. We needed someone very young and who could play Nora in a respectful, elegant way. We knew it was a demanding role. We really wanted to make the casting as open as possible. The casting included trans people and trans actors. We saw more than 500 young people.

What impressed you about your lead Victor Polster?

I need to fall in love with my actors. When I listened to Nora’s story I fell in love with her in a way. When I saw Victor I had that same instant connection. We all felt the same in my casting team once we had seen his audition. Victor really stood out. We felt he would be able to carry this film. The camera follows him a lot so that was important. Nora agreed.

So Nora didn’t say ‘this needs to be a trans actor’?

It’s important to say that we all want trans talent on screen. We want trans talent telling stories. We want trans talent behind the camera. I’m very excited about seeing trans actors on screen and Nora was a big part of this collaboration. But as a team we feel the biggest strength of any artist is empathy. We see performances and cinema as a bridge. We don’t want to limit someone’s performance to their own identity. That’s why we felt comfortable choosing Victor.

Match Factory

There is of an important need for more diversity on screen and in the industry in general. We’re also at a juncture where there is growing uncertainty over who should be able to tell or portray certain stories. There has been very strong criticism from trans critics about Girl with some calling it “voyeuristic”, “irresponsible” and “trans trauma porn”. Some have called out the casting and the fact a cis gender director is telling this story. How do you respond to that criticism? 

Sebastian Lelio, director of A Fantastic Woman, said something amazing, which I’d like to refer to: ‘cinema is a bridge, it should never be a wall.’ The reason I make movies is to get to know people better. I loved getting to know Nora and I wanted to put her on screen. There’s a big nuance at the moment. We need to add voices on screen but we cannot limit ourselves at the same time. I don’t only want to tell autobiographical stories. I want to tell stories that interest me. That said, I want to listen to different opinions about my film. I learn from that. I’ve engaged in dialogue. Representation and the future of representation is important. But I don’t think a director should only be limited to making films that only pertain to his or her identity.

Was your main character Lara meant to be a standard bearer for a particular group — was she symbolic of the trans community or a wider struggle, for example?

There is one sentence in the film which I’d like to refer to. Lara says at one point, ‘I don’t want to be an example, I just want to be a girl’. This story is about the experience of one trans girl. It’s a singular portrait. I know from talking to many individuals and with organizations that there is a spectrum of trans experiences, just like there is a spectrum of human experiences. With this film we only wanted to tell one experience: Nora’s experience. Everything you see on screen is inspired by her and she is very happy with the portrayal. That’s what we wanted to do. It’s fine if other people don’t identify with this character.

If we look at the bigger picture, the world of the ballet was used in the film as a metaphor for a society which works in a binary way: a world that is divided into roles for men and women. A world that is based on a fairytale. There is a commentary there. A young character is trying to find her way in that world.

The film was also powerful in terms of its depiction of the challenging adolescent experience. The film’s interest in physicality seemed natural given that it is about an adolescent, a ballerina and someone who wants to significantly alter their body. I didn’t find this to be gratuitous, but some trans critics have. Were you concerned that the camera spent too much time trained on Victor’s body?

The reason we focus on the physicality is of course because Lara wants to become a classical dancer. Even trans dancers who have watched the film said that its attention to physicality is something they recognize as understandable. It also ties into the fact the character is a teenager, when we are so aware of our bodies. These were important parts of Nora’s experience.

We’re at a point where some actors won’t take on certain roles due to their gender or sexuality. Scarlett Johansson backed out of movie Rub & Tug following an outcry. It feels like a ‘whose experience is it, anyway?’ moment. What’s your take on this scenario?

It’s a difficult thing for me to comment on. In Belgium and Europe I think the conversation is slightly different. I think to an extent this is a conversation rooted in Hollywood. I don’t know all the details of that situation. When I watch a series like Pose I am so excited to see trans stories being told. But trans talent shouldn’t feel they can only tell trans stories. Talented people should be able to tell any story. The biggest strength of art is empathy. For me, that means we shouldn’t limit stories we tell to our own experiences and identities. Let’s include, not exclude.

The movie will be on Netflix in the U.S. from January. To what extent have you reached out to the trans community ahead of its launch?

We are talking to trans groups. We are talking about how to put the film on the platform. We’ve had so much great reaction already from all quarters, including trans kids and parents of trans kids. Netflix organized an LGBT screening a few days ago in LA which was attended by some trans men and women. I welcome conversations around this subject but it’s also about the film being what it is now.

Would you make a movie with a trans theme again?

Yes. I fell in love with Nora in 2009. I wanted to bring her voice to screen. I wanted to show that character. If I was to come to another trans person with an amazing story then yes I would be glad to tell it. I will always want to tell stories that are special.