“This is a documentary,” director Sébastien Lifshitz said during his talk on Petite fille, “but I wanted it to look like fiction.” To achieve this goal, Lifshitz uses sweeping images shot in widescreen ratio; a generous soundtrack featuring orchestras and keys; and a seamless, unprovoking editing style. This is, indeed, a big film for a little girl.
The little girl in question is the seven-year old Sasha, who lives in a small, unnamed village in France. “You could go to Reims,” the village doctor says to Sasha’s mother Karine, “but you’re most likely to find a specialist in Paris who will be able to help him.” Only after their visit to a Parisian hospital, Sasha receives official recognition for her non-cisgender identity. When a specialist writes out an official document that states her gender dysphoria, Karine beams. “This what we needed,” she tells the doctor, implying that if Sasha gets expelled from school she could take legal action on the basis of transphobic discrimination. Karine and Sasha are swimming against the stream, from their conservative village up to Paris with its solid network of medical assistance; as they descend again, down to the countryside, they clutch onto the document that allows Sasha to stay in school, but they also find themselves with a mission: to educate and emancipate.
Lifshitz turns reality into a novelistic narrative by carefully portraying the participants in Sasha’s story. The protagonists, Sasha and Karine, endure hardships from evil antagonists like the school principal and ballet teacher; they meet friendly helpers, embodied by medical staff, who guide them along their way. Lifshitz himself remains taciturn: his documentary poetics are based on selecting bite-sized ideas from quiet observation. Sasha is treated with the utmost respect. Although adults mostly do the talking, her experiences as a transgender girl are communicated through non-verbal gestures: Sasha’s silent tears at the hospital, confronted with the school’s conservative ideology; her smiles and confidence as she twirls in a newly-bought dress. Nothing feels forced, and this is precisely Petite fille’s strength.
Lifshitz presents the transgender experience in an accessible format. It fulfills its own premise as it will succeed in reaching out to audiences that are normally apprehensive towards LGBTQ+ themes. But, as much as transgender stories deserve aestheticization like any other story, do we really need to fictionalize the real in order to get a hold of it?