Céline Sciamma talks “Tomboy,” “Water Lilies” and why LGBT film festivals are still necessary

French screenwriter and filmmaker Céline Sciamma was behind the 2007 Water Lilies, a film following a pair of teenage girls who explored their sexualities after meeting in the swimming pool locker room. And now with her new movie Tomboy, Sciamma delves again into the idea of gender and sexuality from the point of view of someone too young to know who they are and how that aligns with who everyone else wants them to be. In the case, the character in question has an idea that what they are feeling is not quite “right” and that they could be in trouble for the way they are acting, despite it being the most natural to them.

In Tomboy, this person is Laure, a 10-year-old girl who performs as a boy, introducing herself to neighbor children (including a girl who has a crush on her and with whom she later shares a kiss) as Mikael.

As Mikael, Laure is able to take off her shirt to play shirts-and-skins soccer with fellow boys; able to fight them to defend her sister’s honor. But there is a constant fear of being found out, as Laure has to hide in the woods to urinate away from where she could be seen and constructs a fake play-doh penis to put inside her swimtrunks, which she also makes herself.

What’s never clear about Laure is who Laure thinks she is. Is she transgender? Is she a lesbian? Is she simply a tomboy? We talked with Céline Sciamma via e-mail about the film and what story she wanted to tell with a 10-year-old androgynous girl at its center.

AfterEllen.com: What is it about adolescence that speaks to you as a filmmaker?

Céline Sciamma: I like coming of age stories, because they are about the first times, and therefore portray strong emotions, with powerful storytelling. Also, as a young filmmaker, I liked the idea of working with a young cast, around youth problematic. It allowed me to be freer, and to invent my method. I grew up as a filmmaker with films about growing up.

AE: Obviously there is a question of if Mikael is trans-identified, a lesbian, etc. but how did you see the character from the beginning?

CS: I wanted to keep all the hypotheses open when I was building the character. Not to avoid answers, but to make it more complex and accurate. That’s what interested me in setting that story in childhood. It’s a time where everybody pretends to be someone else for an afternoon, everyone makes up stories about themselves. I made it with several layers, so that a transexual person can say “that was my childhood” and so that an heterosexual woman can also say it. The movie creates bond. That’s something I’m proud of.

AE: The relationship Mikael has with Lisa: Do you feel he has feelings for her or is he acting out what he thinks a boy would do in the situation?

CS: I think it’s both. The movie is ambiguous about Mikael’s feelings for Lisa. It plays with the confusion. I wanted it to be that way. Tomboy is not built around “why” she’s doing things; it is all about “how” she’s doing it. The character doesn’t project in the future, she’s all about the present. That was a way to be fair in the portrait of childhood I wanted to make.

AE: The film has played a lot of LGBT film festivals in America. Was that your intent for the film or did you feel like it had better placement in LGBT specific fests vs. other kinds of film festivals? Do you think there is a need for LGBT film festivals?

CS: Of course there is a need for LGBT festivals, because it allows films to travel and to encounter audiences. I had no specific intent, I’m just glad when my films reach people. I don’t interfere in the process of selection. I just keep it open. That’s how I made the film anyway. Not trying to make it specifically LGBT. It was a choice from the start to make the movie very open on the problematic, so that everyone can relate. It’s not a way to avoid the gay problematic actually, it’s a way to be political to make the film welcoming for a wide audience.

AE: Do you identify with any of the characters in Tomboy? What about Water Lilies?

CS: When you write about childhood you go search in your memories. I was kind of a tomboy as a child, I had the short hair, and the androgynous look. I was mistaken for a boy sometimes even though I wasn’t looking for it. But I remember what it felt like, the pleasure, the freedom, the angst sometimes. So I really relate to Laure/Mikael.

In Water Lilies, I identify strongly to Marie, my main character. Even though both films are not my stories, per se, I like to think you should write about what you know, the emotions you felt strongly. Not to tell your own little story, but to find the right distance, away from the cliché, and to be more accurate and generous in fiction.

AE: What lesbian-themed films did you/do you enjoy? Any lesbian directors you find inspiration from?

CS: I remember discovering Go Fish as a teenager. So Rose Troche‘s work, up to The L Word, really counts. My favorite lesbian-themed film is Mulholland Drive.

AE: What will your next project be?

CS: I don’t know yet what my next project will be because I’m still promoting Tomboy all over the world, as it has been sold in 30 countries. But I have this dream of making a TV series. I would love to follow characters for eight hours instead of 90 minutes.

Tomboy opens today in New York and in L.A. on Nov. 25.