and one day up for prom queen ...

in 47th Seattle International Film Festival

by Alexander Zwart

Little Girl


The shared necessity for inclusion (and how our colleagues are our friends, not our enemies)

After skipping a year because of the Covid pandemic, the Seattle International Film Festival returned with a solely online edition. In previous years the FIPRESCI jury was appointed to give its verdict on the New American Cinema Competition, but this year FIPRESCI was asked to look at the official competition. In the paraphrased words of festival director Beth Barrett, this competition can be seen as a Best of Fest.

The first striking thing about this competition is that it consists of just seven titles. The second is how the pandemic – without being mentioned in any of the films – left its mark on the selection. How? Not one of the selected titles is from the year of this edition itself, all the films date from 2020. Most of them have already won a variety of prizes at other festivals. Notable examples: There is No Evil (Mohammad Rasoulof, 2020), winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival 2020 and Downstream to Kinshasa (Dieudo Hamadi, 2020) from Cannes’ official selection 2020.

What can clearly be seen in this year’s selection of films in the official competition is the careful curatorship that took ethnicity, geography, inclusion and relevant current topics into consideration. Mainly focusing on personal and local stories, it took us as a jury from fragmented memories through dementia in the Slovenian Sanremo (Miroslav Mandic, 2020) to teen drug addiction in Québec in Goddess of the Fireflies (Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, 2020). But my personal favorite and the clear winner, from the moment I saw it, was an intimate French documentary about (the family of) a seven-year-old little girl, who happened to be born as a boy. Though I have to admit, as an openly gay man, I was afraid that having this little but important film win would be a one-person quest in a three-headed jury of white men.

Let’s not deny that, apart from not being straight, I’m a white male too. Things are supposedly easier for me. When it comes to my sexuality, though, I still have the feeling I have to mention it soon when meeting new people. It always raises an eyebrow when I tell people about this urge to get it out of the way. So let me try to explain:

Coming across as a straight guy, not by choice, unintentionally hides my being, my personality, in a way that people of color and women can’t normally hide. And shouldn’t want to hide. In that aspect, wanting to let people know as fast as possible and always looking for the right timing to tell (preferably casually drop it) without letting it be a huge topic of conversation is where I can maybe feel the pain of most underprivileged. I want to be seen as a whole before I can let things escalate and ‘get caught’ by someone else who will ask me – usually with a lot of detours – whether I’m gay. It’s as if I will lose my strength, like a cropped and shaven Samson, when I’m not in control. I guess it’s my way of maintaining my openness as mine, ever since I had my coming out.

Flash forward ever since that coming out to 2021. My heartfelt favorite in this year’s competition, Petite Fille (2020) by French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz, is by all standards an amazing documentary. That’s something I can undoubtedly say as a film critic, film journalist and as a programmer. What I can’t rule out in my judgement is where it touches my own past. Not that I want to rule that out, but it can make things more difficult to explain when you discuss films with fellow critics that don’t share that experience. At the same time, the doubts I had, had probably blinded me. By putting their love for the arts first, most fellow film critics are progressive and open-minded thinkers. Thank God for my colleagues across the world.

Within the first five minutes of our jury deliberation, we had ourselves a winner. The film I had all my hopes on was on the top of all our lists, making Petite Fille our unanimous victor(ess). With this film, Lifshitz gives us a hero who doesn’t know how great the battle is she is fighting. Lifshitz’s main merit is telling Sasha’s story with admirable confidence and simplicity. He has the perfect feeling and timing of how to tell it. Had he made it any bigger or explanatory, its’ trumpery would have made it go down as gay extravaganza and would have worked against it. The very simple setup it has is all it needed. And it needed Lifshitz’s mastery for that to be seen; Sasha’s story is already deep and layered enough as it is.

As Sasha’s mother mentions in the film, her little daughter will be up for many more challenges as she grows up and goes into puberty. In the film, Sasha is seven. Approximately two years since filming has ended, she is probably nine or ten years old now, and I’m already wondering what this little role model has been through after the filming period. Maybe Lifshitz and Sasha herself can give us another look at her life later on, in the tradition of Michael Apted’s 7 Up-series, or in the style of Lifshitz’s own documentary answer to Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014), Adolescents (2019).

For now, let’s cherish this wonderful little gem of a movie that goes beyond its small-town French scale setting and even beyond movie-making. Lifshitz’s film is not just cinema (which is a big enough achievement in itself); it’s a plea for understanding. It’s perfect LGBTQI+ educational material but also a film for everyone who struggles to fit in the boxes we want to put them in. One look at little Sasha’s face during ballet classes that make her dress like the boy she doesn’t make you feel sorry for her to live in this narrow-minded world we have created. Let’s hope that after this FIPRESCI-win, wonderful little Sasha will one day be crowned as prom queen. And maybe Lifshitz will be there to film it. Deservedly so.

Alexander Zwart
Edited by Justine Smith