At the age of 18, Belgian director Lukas Dhont read a newspaper article about a trans girl who wanted to take female dance classes. Eight years later, the article would inspire a film that drew critical acclaim on one of the biggest stages for a young filmmaker: the Cannes Film Festival.
“She, to me, was an example of someone who was able to choose the truest version of herself,” Dhont told TheWrap’s Steve Pond at a Q&A on Monday following a screening of his film “Girl,” which won three prizes at this year’s Cannes, including the Camera d’Or for best first feature film and the Queer Palm for best LGBT-related film.
“Girl,” also Belgium’s entry into the Oscar foreign film race, is based on the true story of a 15-year-old trans ballerina born in a boy’s body. Lara (played by trained dancer Victor Polster) goes through hormone treatment to make her feel more comfortable in her own body. But throughout the process, she has to grapple with society’s view of trans people while also climbing the ranks at her dance academy. Arieh Wortlhalter stars as Lara’s father, Mathias.
Dhont told the audience at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles that he spent years getting close to the real-life Lara before production of the film even began. He witnessed the complex relationship she had with her body as she tried to break through in the world of ballet, a world that Dhont said is “very gender specified and binary.”
Indeed, “Girl” explores Lara’s evolving view of her body. For every ballet practice she goes to, Lara will tape down her genitals and look herself in the mirror. Her lack of comfort comes to the forefront when she starts liking a boy in her apartment complex. During one intimate moment between her and the boy, she runs off at the slight indication he might know what she’s hiding.
During these instances of insecurity, Dhont said he wants the audience to see what a life like hers is really like.
“The biggest quality of an artist is empathy,” Dhont said, referring to Victor’s performance.
Finding the right person to portray Lara was critical for Dhont. He needed to find someone who could accurately portray a story where the protagonist “is her own antagonist.” They auditioned approximately 500 actors and dancers for the role of Lara, both cisgender and trans.
Ultimately, it was someone who came in for a small role who caught Dhont’s eye.
“I was scared,” Polster said, using Dhont as his translator. “I was scared to be the part of Lara and not do her justice.”
After three months of rehearsal and the help of the real-life Nora on set, Lara and “Girl” would come to life. The result, Dhont said, is a film he hopes can bridge the gap between the trans community and those opposed to their right to live like everyone else.
“Let’s invite Trump to come watch,” Dhont said.