French documentary filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz has been interested in the struggles and constructions of singular identities for 25 years. The Invisible Ones (2012) tells the story of aging homosexual couples who bear witness to a life of disobedience; Bambi (2013) portrays the trajectory of one of the first transsexual music-hall stars in Paris; while Adolescents (2019) follows two young girls struggling to remain friends through their turbulent teenage years. He sat down with us to discuss his latest film.
France-Amérique: The subject of trans-identity had been addressed in Bambi, but it was about capturing an older woman’s view of her past. Why did you go back to childhood with Little Girl?
Sébastien Lifshitz: When I asked Bambi at what point in her life she became aware that she was a woman, she replied: “As far back as I can remember, I have always felt it in my bones.” I became aware that trans-identity was not linked to a specific time in life, as one might think, during puberty for example, but that it can happen at any age. With that in mind, I thought that it would be exciting to meet a child in this situation today.
How did you meet Sasha and her family?
The search for a transgender child and a family who would agree to be filmed raised the issue of meeting spaces. It is important to realize that in France there is almost nowhere that deals with questions of gender dysphoria. Most of the time, parents who find themselves in this situation are completely lost. They don’t know who to turn to, and in the worst cases there is violence or censorship involved. We placed an ad explaining our approach on an internet forum where parents of transgender children could share their experiences, and that’s how Sasha’s mother contacted us.
The camera films Sasha closely; it accompanies her in her construction and does not showcase any contradictory opinions – that of the school principal, for example. Why did you choose to exclusively focus on your subject?
I didn’t want the documentary to be a sociological study, but rather a living portrait that tells the everyday of this family, in order to understand the child’s inner life. Even if I wanted to make room for the school, with the headmaster and the teacher, they refused any collaboration with the film. It was crazy not to have access to a place where children are supposed to grow, interact, and understand the world and society. The school had become a restricted area.
Does the fact that the local community resists differences and remains attached to the norm imply that France is a particularly gendered society?
Globally, we live in societies that are machines designed to make us conform to extremely gendered models that push children to identify with their birth gender. It is very complicated to be a child with a shifting identity, and there are many who understand quite quickly that the name of the game is to choose a side – otherwise they risk becoming a rebel and drawing the wrath of their peers, and sometimes of their teachers and families. It’s terrible that difference can trigger so much hostility.
During a retrospective of your work at the Centre Pompidou in 2019, you stated that “intimacy is political.” Is this a constant in your work?
Most of my movies are intimate stories and often portrait-films. I’ve always had the feeling that, by recounting things that are supposedly banal about the birth of desire or the construction of identity, eminently social and political issues come to light. We are constantly caught up in a restrictive context, and we never stop fighting it in order to be free. It’s a struggle we all face.
Head to the distributor’s website for the full list of U.S. theaters showing the film.