‘I couldn’t fulfil the expectation of masculinity’


The Flemish film Girl opens the Ghent Film Festival this week, and the director talks to Flanders Today about his own past and the extraordinary journey of the real-life trans girl who inspired him

Cannes favourite

In 2009, Lukas Dhont read a newspaper article that would determine the direction of the next decade of his life. It was about a 15-year-old named Nora who was not only transitioning from male to female but was studying to become a ballerina.

“It immediately struck me. I was paralysed,” says Dhont (pictured). “The story contained all of these themes that were already really important to me. And I saw a concrete form in which I could talk about these things. I also saw the cinematographic potential.”

So when he graduated from film school at Ghent’s Academy of Fine Arts, he set out to make a movie based on Nora’s extraordinary story. The ensuing film, Girl, brought home six prizes from the Cannes Film Festival in May, including the Fipresci, the Caméra d’or and the Queer Palm. It premieres in Belgium next week on the opening night of the Ghent Film Festival before its release in cinemas on 17 October.

It was the icing on the cake of four years of writing, casting and shooting the movie, which, though not a biopic of Nora, is certainly inspired by her experiences. She was by Dhont’s side throughout the project.

Inner demons

Girl is the story of Lara, a teenager in the midst of a gender transition at the same time she enters a demanding ballet school. This doubles her struggle to accept – indeed to not loathe – her pre-operative body.

While Lara is surrounded by people who love and support her, she is still filled with inner turmoil, desperate to perfectly represent not just a gender but the ultimate archetype of female form and grace – the ballerina.

“When I grew up, I was a very feminine boy, and I always felt awkward,” Dhont shares. “I had the feeling that I couldn’t fulfil this expectation of masculinity. It was something I really struggled with, and it took me a very long time to accept myself and the femininity in me. I think it’s something we need to talk about more – about masculinity and femininity and how that can be a fluid thing.”

While the number of prizes certainly surprised him, Dhont does understand what people see in the film. “It doesn’t go looking at conflict with the outside world,” he explains. “Often when you see a trans or any LGBT character in a film, they have to fight with people who question their identity, who have a problem with them. In this film, we really went looking for the conflict inside the character. She is surrounded by people who accept her, which allows her to be a human being, someone who can make her own mistakes and have an internal struggle. The film brings something new to the table.”

It’s something we need to talk about more –masculinity and femininity and how that can be a fluid thing

- Director Lukas Dhont

The movie’s fans can also imagine how difficult a journey like this would be. “The dance and the metaphor of the most elegant of the female form, the ballerina, in combination with the main protagonist is something that really resonates with people. She’s looking for perfection, which I think a lot of us are looking for. I do that, too, and, as a filmmaker, it blocks me.”

Finally, he says, the film has won plaudits “because the actor is insanely incredible”.

Victor Polster is a student at the Royal Ballet School in Antwerp. He was eventually pegged to play the part after a long casting process. “We did a genderless casting,” Dhont recalls. “We saw girls and boys and young transgender girls. But in the end, we didn’t find anyone who had the qualities the role required.”

Two years later, after further development of the project, there was another casting. “Victor entered the room with a group of other young people, and I was sitting next to my co-writer and the producer. We all looked at each other, it was like this look of recognition.”

They didn’t search any further. “The way he moved, the way he danced, his look. It was just all so right for this part.” Dhont isn’t alone in his thinking: Polster won the best actor award at Cannes.

Trans actors for trans parts?

In Hollywood, however, there is a controversy raging about casting non-trans actors for trans parts. Although it has been an issue for many years, it came to a head this year when Scarlett Johansson was cast in a biopic of a trans man. Following months of outrage, she finally dropped out of the project.

“I’m so happy that the trans community of actors is using this situation to stand up and speak out, to say, hey we’re not allowed to audition for the roles of cis people, and now we’re not allowed to audition for the roles of trans people!,” says Dhont. “Hollywood is a system that for a very long time has supressed minority groups. It works on a star system; they cast who they think people will want to see.”

But Belgium, he says, doesn’t work according to that system. “I didn’t cast Victor because he was a star. He was an unknown 15-year-old boy. I knew that he would play the role with respect and with maturity.”

But there is a far more interesting reason why Dhont chose to allow a non-trans actor to play the part. “We saw some trans girls, but I immediately felt that the responsibility to film them, to portray them in this story, which is very close to them, in a moment in their lives where they are going through this, where they are transforming – it was  a responsibility that I couldn’t take on. It’s too vulnerable for them to be filmed, to be captured on a medium that will never go away. At a later time, when they feel they have transitioned, they won’t necessarily want to be remembered for where their body was at when we shot this film.”

Girl opens the Ghent Film Festival on 9 October and opens in cinemas across Belgium on 17 October

Ghent Film Festival turns 45

The 45th edition of the Ghent Film Festival is creating a buzz for its opening and closing films: It begins with Girl and ends with Beautiful Boy. The former (see above) brought six prizes home from Cannes, while the latter is the highly anticipated adaptation of the American father-son memoirs about a family torn apart by drug addiction.

Beautiful Boy (pictured above) was made by Flemish director Felix Van Groeningen, his first foray into Hollywood following the Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown. Groeningen will talk to audiences following the screenings on 19 October.

The festival guest country this year is Hungary, which provides a unique chance to see several contemporary films from an industry still preoccupied with Communism and conflict. Two films on the programme stand out: Eternal Winter by Attila Szász is about a group of women who unwittingly get transferred to a hard labour camp during the Second World War, while Strangled looks at corruption and cover-ups in the true story of a serial killer in a 1960s Hungarian village.

Other excellent film choices are Ash is Purest White, an 18-year journey in the life of a 21st-century mobster by Chinese director Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin), and High Life by French director Claire Denis, a disturbing look at space travel starring Robert Pattison (Twilight).

The largest film festival in Belgium, Ghent is also home to the World Soundtrack Awards, where the public can mingle with the best composers from around the globe. There are also talks, parties, concerts of film music and appearances by special guests, including Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (Far from the Madding Crowd), who will talk about Kursk, his new film starring Flanders’ own Matthias Schoenaerts.

9-19 October, Kinepolis and other venues across Ghent

Photos, from top: Lukas Dhont, director of Girl ©Johan-Jacobs; Victor Polster (left) won the best actor award at Cannes for his portrayal of Lara in Girl ©Menuet; Beautiful Boy by Flemish director Felix Van Groeningen

Film Fest Ghent

Film Fest Ghent is Flanders’ largest international film festival. Each October, the festival draws acclaimed actors, directors and composers from around the world.
Soundtrack - Since 2001, the festival has hosted the World Soundtrack Awards, one of the world’s premier award ceremonies for film scores.
Student - Film Fest Ghent was originally launched as a festival for student films.
Happening - Each year, the festival hosts many side events, including concerts, exhibitions, discussion panels and parties.
1 973

first edition


films shown each year

130 000

annual visitors