Review of documentary – Petite fille/ Little Girl

This French documentary called Petite fille (Little Girl) carries a PG certificate in the UK market and was screened on BBC4 as part of the Storyville documentary series, available on BBC iplayer at the time of writing. The child subject of the film is an 8 year old boy called Sasha. However it is his overbearing mother who has the starring role. She has three other children and a husband.

Sasha told me something after ballet when she was crying in her room. She said, “I wonder if there’s any point fighting.” That really… Do you remember saying that? You were crying and said, “I wonder if there’s any point fighting.” I was really… You don’t remember? [Touches Sasha’s hair] When you were crying, you said that.

[Sasha looks straight ahead, face a blank, before sadness creeps in]

Mum telling a tall tale to the gender doctor – in the last ten minutes of the film

The first thing of concern about the documentary is in the very first scene when we realise that Sasha is alone with the film crew in his bedroom. We hear laughter in the background from elsewhere in the house from his family. Predictably Sasha is dressing up in girly clothes and doing his hair. Notably this happens again at the end of the documentary, where Sasha is on his bed, hitting the bedframe in a bored manner. The camera leers over all his dolls, as if it were proof of his femaleness, and then Sasha appears to hold back a cry, controls himself and then begins to show the unseen adult(s) photos of himself aged 4 or 5 – from a time before his parents had ‘socially transitioned’ him. He looks to be a normal boy.

In the first major scene, mum goes to visit, what appears to be a psychologist, where she gets straight to the rub of the matter. Sasha told her when he was two years old that he was a girl. Sasha ‘detests his pee pee’ and is sad that he won’t be able to grow a baby in his tummy. The man asks her about her pregnancy and she admits that yes, she desperately wanted a girl. We later learn that she has had miscarriages in the past with female babies, despite that she has a teenage daughter. None of this is probed further despite its obvious relevance.

Mum also tells this first psychologist that the school has told her that they believe it is her who is pushing Sasha into the role of a girl, not Sasha himself.

He tells her that he doesn’t have the necessary specialism to deal with the case and that she needs to visit a gender doctor.

The narrative arc of the documentary is built around the question of whether Sasha will be able to start the new school year as a girl, or not. For this to happen the mother needs a certificate from the gender doctor and the agreement of the school.

The family are presented as completely functional – scenes of them playing snowballs in the garden with each other, jokes around the dinner table. The father makes a fairly late appearance, but again he is totally supportive and presented as rational. When we see film of Sasha as a baby, the footage looks faded, as if it were filmed on real film rather than digitally, and it made me wonder whether this effect was added to create a feeling of nostalgia. Haunting music plays when the mum wonders whether it’s all her fault. It is emotive and persuasive.

As one would expect, the mother is all over Sasha. In particular, we see repeated scenes in which she dresses him. An 8 year old boy who has complete co-ordination of his limbs and attends ballet class, is physically dressed by his mother and the camera captures it several times.

Mum tells us that Sasha has never had any friends home because of the situation he is currently in – he dresses like a girl at home, but can only dress like a boy at school. It’s the fault of the school because they are going by what is on his birth certificate. Interestingly when Sasha tells her that he has a friend call Theo, the mother quickly changes the subject to Lola, the little girl that she wants him to be friends with.

The visit to the gender doctor in Paris

A visit to the gender doctor in Paris completes Act 1 of the drama. The doctor literally wears a white coat. The consultation is filmed and Sasha is encouraged by mum to say that he doesn’t like his teachers, but finally mum admits that it’s her who doesn’t like Sasha’s teachers. An admission which is frankly irresponsible for the director to include (though to be honest, the whole project is unethical).

When Sasha is asked by the doctor to remember a time that he was bullied he has nothing to report. Mum prompts him to remember being pushed, she reminds him twice and when he agrees something had happened she reflexively touches herself in relief. She also says that he was picked on in the toilet, but Sasha says nothing to corroborate this.

She asks this psychologist whether she is responsible for Sasha’s predicament and the doctor says that parents’ behaviour is never a factor in gender dysphoria and can absolutely be ruled out. Sasha becomes tearful. Mum wants a letter to prove to the school that she isn’t crazy. A letter recommending ‘social transition’ with pronoun changes is immediately dispensed by the gender doctor.

Hormone blockers

In the fading light of a summer’s evening, the parents discuss their upcoming meeting with an endocrinologist to discuss halting Sasha’s puberty. The kids are playing in the garden close by and we hear their laughter and bird song.

Mum assures Dad that the process is completely reversible. What about normal growth? Dad wonders. The doctors know what they’re talking about, she says (making it clear that the talk with the endocrinologist has already happened). Of course they do, says the dad, backing down. Mum says that if Sasha only wants to live as a girl for ten years, then it will be absolutely fine to change his mind.

Injecting drama

Scenes in which mum tries to ring the school to speak to the headteacher are dramatically flat. It appears she gets the voicemail every time. We have several scenes in the film which are characterised by her alone in her fight against the unseen school and its teachers, tottering off down the road toward the school, or in the car with a singular look on her face.

It seems likely that the school all along refused to discuss the issue until a proper psychological assessment had taken place, so the to-ing and fro-ing are likely added for dramatic effect.

Second visit to gender doctor

This time it is a family visit, including dad and Sasha’s older brother. The doctor asks Sasha how he explains things to his friends, then she asks the same question to his brother. Then she addresses the parents directly and tells them that they need to think about whether Sasha’s fertility should be preserved or not and that hormones will cause his sperm to be non-functioning.

This is closely followed by the mum, in a separate scene, reflecting that Sasha is likely to face a lot of physical threat and violence in his life and that she will be there to protect him always – it will be the battle of both our lives, is how she phrases it. Later she makes up, what appears to be, formula milk for him to drink from nursing bottle.

Success with the school – final act starts

After a few more scenes in which the parents metaphorically pull their hair out over the ‘idiots’ at the school, Sasha is told on camera that they have finally achieved a result for him and he will be allowed to be a ‘girl’ at school and wear what he wants and have female pronouns. Sasha looks sad.

Cue yet another scene of him being literally dressed by mum, but this time his long hair is in a pony tail.

Third visit to gender doctor

Then it’s winter. We are treated to a train journey looking out over snow covered fields, a nod to the circle of life. It’s the final visit to the woman in the white coat. The gender doctor.

The mother tells an unlikely story of his ballet teacher rejecting him in class publicly, in front of the other kids and their parents and describes that the teacher literally pushed him out of the room and closed the door on him, with the last thing him seeing was the little smile on the teacher’s face. She completes the story by turning to Sasha and saying that she is so sorry that she has let him down. ‘What more could mummy have done?’ the doctor asks Sasha accusingly. Sasha says nothing.

Sasha told me something after ballet when she was crying in her room. She said, “I wonder if there’s any point fighting.” That really… Do you remember saying that? You were crying and said, “I wonder if there’s any point fighting.” I was really… You don’t remember? [Touches Sasha’s hair] When you were crying, you said that. [Sasha looks straight ahead, face a blank, before sadness creeps in]

Mum desperately trying to make her story work

Predictably enough the final scene is Sasha ballet dancing in the garden wearing a pair of butterfly wings.

My reflection

I looked at a few reviews for this documentary and none appear to see the obvious problems in the family dynamic: an overbearing mother with a repeated stated desire to have had another daughter, and a weak father, who alters his opinion every time his wife nudges him. None of the reviewers appear to be concerned that an 8 year old boy is being prepared for infertility. The butterfly wings at the end could be regarded as product placement. Mad, bad and very very sinister.

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