Finding freedom

Laurent Micheli on getting beyond victim stereotypes in Lola And The Sea

by Paul Risker

Lola And The Sea
Lola And The Sea Photo: AZ Movies

Belgian director Laurent Micheli's sophomore feature Lola And The Sea tells the story of a trans woman, Lola (Mya Bollaers), who reconnects with her estranged father Phillipe (Benoît Magimel), during a road trip to scatter her mother's ashes in the North Sea. The question at the heart of the story is whether he can finally accept Lola, which would be the most fitting act of remembrance to his wife, who supported her.

In conversation with Eye For Film, Micheli discussed not presenting a view of trans people as victims, and challenging his audience to understand the need for compassion and understanding.

Paul Risker: Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?

Lola And The Sea
Lola And The Sea Photo: AZ Movies

Laurent Micheli: I never wanted to be a director. I've worked mostly as an actor in theatre for ten years, and I’ve also worked as a stage director. Ten years ago I was writing a new stage project and realised the subject was suited to the cinema. I tried to make a film, even though I'd never done one. I asked friends who were technicians and directors of photography to work with me, and by the end we had our first feature film, Even Lovers Get The Blues.

To suddenly be shooting that film was a huge thing for me because I was a little tired of being an actor, and I wanted to work on my own stories. It was a revelation, and I’ve never stopped being a filmmaker since then. It's powerful to write stories, and to be a director is a privilege because you can share films and ideas with the audience.

PR: Is it only the sharing of ideas only that makes cinema powerful, and how do you view the way it contrasts with the stage?

LM: Cinema nowadays is easier, not to make, but the camera, sound, and technical instruments are cheaper now, and that’s why I was able to make my first feature with barely no money. It's a place where I felt free. I don't know why I felt more free in cinema than in the theatre, but it's powerful because you have to recreate life, and you can capture those moments. For example, you can switch from a documentary style and have something bigger with the camera movements and CGI. You can mix it all together and create a new universe.

It's also powerful because you can get inside the homes of people - you can touch people everywhere in the world. It's like music for example, whereas with theatre, you have to invite people to a place where you have only limited space. In this way, you can share ideas.

Lola And The Sea
Lola And The Sea Photo: AZ Movies

PR: When you talk about things becoming easier, is this the result of the democratisation of filmmaking?

LM: Yes and no. I don't know if we're in a weird era, because you can make films more easily, but it’s also more difficult right now because of the market. If you want the money to make your film, then you have to convince a lot of people. I did my first feature with no money, but Lola and the Sea I made with money, and my third film will need a lot of money too, so it takes time.

It's hard, but if at some point I get tired of waiting, I can still do some other films in-between because there are a lot of ways to create cinema. I don't know if it's the same in the UK, but in Belgium you have a lot of actors that are making films. You’ve this younger generation of filmmakers that are working on their first features, and you can feel anxious because the money available is not growing.

PR: Picking up on your point about getting inside people’s homes, was your intention to open hearts and minds towards the trans community, breaking down social barriers to encourage compassion and understanding?

LM: Of course that's what I tried to do, because I felt films about transgender issues and characters were always showing them as victims. From speaking with trans people, I had the feeling the problem was the way people consider or don't consider you. We now know a trans kid who is raised in a loving family, who has good friends and isn't bullied in school, feels good about herself or himself. Being trans isn't a problem, the problem is a society that doesn't help trans people to feel good about themselves.

Lola And The Sea poster
Lola And The Sea poster Photo: Peccadillo Pictures

I wanted to show a girl who knew exactly who she was and felt good about herself, was strong, and the issues in life were coming from the outside, not the inside. The idea was to make the audience think about the responsibility we all have towards the well being of others.

PR: The father is representative of this side of society that’s unaccepting. What aspects of society are more culpable for this? Is it the political and religious institutions, and has art been somewhat responsible for being slow to broaden representation?

LM: It’s coming from a lot of places. The character of the father is not a hard religious person, it's more cultural. I wanted to make it possible for many people to recognise themselves in that character.

What can I say, yes, art and religion are moving very slowly. In the art field, you've a new generation that's trying to change things, and you've also a lot of other people making films and music that are still stuck in an old way of thinking. I'm trying to work on that when making my own films, but I also don't want art to become this political thing. It still has to be art, and so you have to find your freedom as a writer, and open up new questions.

PR: Before to after, has the process of making Lola and the Sea changed you as a person?

LM: … Working on a transgender character, I didn't want to say the wrong things about the trans community. I'm not a trans person, I'm a cis person, so this is not my life I'm writing about, it's someone else’s. I met trans people and parents of trans kids; I stepped into that community and world. I learned a lot about trans people and in that way I changed.

Working for the first time with an actress who wasn't an actress, but a trans girl I met through casting, was something I learned a lot from. You cannot help someone to play a character who has no technique and is a little scared about that. On the other hand, I had Benoît, who is the opposite kind of actor. He has made 80 films and so it was a journey for me.

Lola And The Sea is in cinemas now.

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