A good short film uses time to support the story. Given the brief running time, a filmmaker must establish a setup, keep viewers in suspense, and deliver a satisfying payoff in, 15 minutes. Short films evoke an immediate, emotional response. What makes them so compelling is that filmmakers often immerse viewers into a situation in which the characters are experiencing a moment of crisis or change. Audiences get to imagine the backstory that led up to this point, and let the film continue in their head after the credits roll. 

Many short films function as calling cards, or ‘proof of concept’ films; they are designed to be turned into features. Shorts show how the director works with actors and conveys their ideas visually. They often rely on a single funder, and are usually set in a single location, utilising a small cast. Shorts also allow filmmakers to take risks and experiment. 

As such, it is always a risky prospect when filmmakers expand their short films into a feature. The best shorts turned into features use the short as a jumping off point for a narrative. Some good examples include Daniel Ribeiro’s romance, I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone (2010), which became The Way He Looks (2014); Xavier Legrand’s Oscar-nominated Just Before Losing Everything (2013) which was turned into his feature Custody (2017); and Madre (2017), director Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Oscar-nominated short thriller, which was expanded as Mother (2019). 

But this process is not always successful. Shawn Christensen’s Oscar-winning short Curfew (2012) was made into a feature, Before I Disappear (2014), that received mixed reviews. 

Delphine Girard’s Through the Night (2023), which had its World Premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival, is an accomplished feature film that uses the story of its original Oscar-nominated short, A Sister/Une Soeur (2017) as the jumping off point to investigate issues of consent, justice, and guilt. [The film lost the Academy Award to The Neighbors’ Window, (Marshall Curry, 2019).]

The short was a nervy tale of a woman, Alie (Selma Alaoui), who is in a car with Dary (Guillaume Duhesme), when she makes a call to a 911 operator (Veerle Baetens), pretending it is her sister. Alie is in danger, but the short does not provide any specific details about what transpired. The strength of the film, and its tension, comes from watching how Alie’s conversations with both Dary and the 911 operator play out.

Veerle Baetens 

Girard uses the same cast and recreates the short for the first 17 minutes of her debut feature, Through the Night, making minor tweaks. The story then continues to show what happens as Dary is arrested, and Aly (changed from Alie) is questioned about her call to the police. Anna (Baetens), the 911 operator, takes an interest in the case, despite not knowing the identity of Aly. 

What emerges is a thoughtful investigation into a nightmarish situation and the impact it has for each character. Aly has charged Dary with abduction and rape. Intermittent flashbacks show bits of pieces of their interactions before the car ride that opens the film. What transpired is eventually shown – a deliberate decision on Girard’s part, because Through the Night is about how Aly, Dary, and Anna each process the aftermath of the events of that fateful evening. [As such, some spoilers are revealed in the conversation below.]

Aly makes some decisions about her police report and pursuit of justice that complicate things. Meanwhile, Dary, a firefighter, experiences the ordeal of being identified as a rapist. His mother (Anne Dorval) tries to console him and help him navigate life as he awaits trial. On the periphery is Anna, who is concerned about Aly and wants to find a way to reconnect with her. 

Girard spoke with Senses of Cinema on the eve of her film’s premiere to discuss turning her short into a feature and depicting the lives of these three interconnected characters. 

What inspired you to make the short, and was it always planned to be developed into a feature? 

A few years ago, I came across a 911 call in the U.S. where you hear a woman who pretends to call her sister but was actually calling the police to get help. When I listened to that, I was overwhelmed. I felt it was the right story to address the sorority of these women. So, I made the short film. I had no plan on making it into a feature. 

A few things made me think that I wasn’t done with this subject. When we were presenting the film, the characters stayed with me. I kept thinking: What would happen to them in the aftermath of that night? I had done some research when I was making the short. I learned that the woman who made the 911 call did not attend the trial. The guy had received no punishment. So, I wondered: What happened in between that big act of bravery and then not being able to carry your own voice? I did some research in Belgium and met with lawyers, police officers, and went to court to see some trials. I wanted to see what the justice system would offer these people. The short was a thriller, but the feature was the aftermath – after you survive that kind of violence, what happens?

Did you originally plan to use the short as the first 15 minutes of the feature? You have a different background cast in the 911 scenes in the feature, and a few minor changes – the car is blue, instead of red. But it is very much the same film.

We didn’t remake the short completely. The footage you see in the car was the same as in the short film, but the call centre was reshot. When I started writing the feature, I didn’t know if the story would start with the short film, or just after. But after writing a bit, I knew we needed that emotion – so people would experience that and understand where it would go next. As the short film was screened, I saw that we could use that emotion to build a profound reflection about these issues, other than just “it’s awful.” I wanted to use that feeling. What are we doing with those fears and that violence as a society? When we decided the film would start with the short film, we thought about what we will reshoot. We used the same car scenes from the short because they are dark, but we didn’t use the same car for the feature, so we had to change the colour. It was a weird process to remake the call centre scenes – weird for me, the actress, and the crew, many of whom worked on the short. We felt we were with some ghosts. It wasn’t easy to do but it was necessary for the feature. 

A Sister/Une Soeur

Did the Oscar nomination help you make the feature, or was this project already in the works?

It was such a surprise to be nominated. I won everything with that nomination. I was thrilled by the whole experience. It helped me and gave us some legitimacy. The best part was that we were able to show a film made in Belgium in so many places. It was screened in the U.S., which was never part of the original [release] campaign. That was a great surprise. It helped us institutionally, in Belgium, that the story interested people in another part of the world. We were able to find money to make the feature. 

What did you know about 911 calls, and how police question women who claim they have been raped/assaulted? Your film is very specific with language during these scenes, which are later are used in court. Can you talk about that?

What I know about that call was from listening to it. But after that, I went to a call centre in Belgium to find out what questions would be asked. We were able to see people working and take notes. Veerle, the actress, was able to see the physicality of those calls. We had a few conversations with people working there. The job involves super-long hours – it’s so intense – and there is great burnout because you are taking call after call from people who are in distress. There was a woman on the set who was a boss from a call centre, and she was there to answer our questions and guide the actors in the call centre scenes. She was also an extra in the film. 

There was an interesting documentary earlier this year, Victim/Suspect (Nancy Schwartzman, 2023), that shows women who go to the police to report an assault or rape and find themselves accused of and arrested for falsely reporting a crime. This creates a bigger, more harrowing ordeal. I considered that happening to Aly because of how she reports what happened to her. Did you consider this narrative when making Through the Night?

I am not familiar with that film. What is interesting is that I noticed during the editing, that whatever we do with Aly, people will assume she is lying in some way. Maybe she is not completely clear, and that is a topic I wanted to address in the film – the fact that we are expecting the victim to be a representation of a victim. I have no doubt about what she went through – that she is a ‘perfect victim’ to be heard. But I noticed when I went to trials it is never like that. It is difficult to say things. Aly does not lie to the police – she may leave details out – but it is more that victims have to deal with their own guilt for something they did not do. You have to prove and convince someone you have been through what you have just been through. That’s a weird situation. That was why there are not more victims who get justice because it is so hard. If you try to say something, people assume that maybe you are lying. They are looking for proof. Maybe you didn’t yell, or maybe you are not saying exactly what you wanted. There are so many layers… 

That raises the question about including flashbacks to the scenes that occurred before the car ride that opens the film. I thought it was better to imagine what transpired, given what Aly and Dary say. But you made a conscious decision to show that scene. Can you talk about showing the encounter? If we witness what happened, is that more powerful or less satisfying? 

I have to ask you that question! I can say why I did it. That was a big discussion in the editing room. I don’t want to undermine the violence of what occurred. Of course, we can imagine what happened and be clear about the fact that there is a problem, but if we don’t show the violence, there will be people saying that it wasn’t that [bad]. I felt it was a problem of perception, because not everyone has the same level of sensitivity to violence. 

Veerle Baetens

In the short, you can feel she wants to be out of the car, and it is ‘bad enough’ already, even if you did not see an act of violence. In test screenings, I could feel we are not on the same level. In the short film, people didn’t think what happened was ‘that bad,’ and wondered why she was calling the police. We are not perceiving the same thing. So, I needed to be clear because I don’t want that to be ambiguous. Dary’s [storyline] needs the flashback to address what he did for him to be confronted with the violence he did. 

The film pivots in part on a he said/she said case, which is especially topical in this #metoo era. Can you discuss this content, which is wonderfully ambiguous and creates emotional complexities? I had sympathy for both characters. 

For me, that was the goal. In this big #metoo conversation, I wanted to make something that contains complexity. We are trying to find ways to simplify issues to address them. For sexual assault, it is impossible to simplify. If you want to see the reality of it, there is always ambiguity. You will not have proof like you will in, say, a robbery. The justice system has issues to contain the complexities in those stories. You can be a victim even if, at the beginning of the night, you were interested in the guy. 

Cinema does not judge the same way as the justice system. I can look at all these elements without judgment. It was a journey for me to be in every character’s shoes. If I am Dary, how do I go on living? Do I recognise what I’ve done? What can I tell my mother or my friends? Can I flirt with another girl now? What happened to me? You need to deconstruct this to understand it. It is not all black and white. Human beings can be violent and be nice to their mum. It’s difficult for us to accept that. Even if Dary is guilty of this crime, that’s not the only thing that defines him. What do we do with him now? Do we cancel him? That is the question.

Can you talk about Aly’s post-traumatic life? That connected with me emotionally. Her decisions regarding the case, anxiety about being touched, and her picking up a guy were realistic. I was glad she was vulnerable and not out to get revenge on Dary vigilante style. 

With Aly, the way I envisioned that character is that I admired her. She’s powerful in her daily life before that night. She does not pity herself. She finds a way to deal with things. But she didn’t see what happened [with Dary] coming, and she tries to behave the way she used to, distancing herself from what happened, but it doesn’t work. I wanted to explore the fact that with this kind of trauma, there are all these possible troubles afterwards. She is struggling with the idea of not being defined by it, and being alive again, and finding what she likes about life, that balance. I wanted to portray a character who still “belongs to herself.” Sometimes she’s not right, but that’s not for us to judge. It’s not because she’s a victim of this that there is a right way to respond. She is also trying to find the right person to help her and comfort her. The police station is not the right place for Aly, her sister is too emotionally involved. Her lawyer tells her what to say, her ex is not listening to her. Anna gave Aly the right opportunity. 

Likewise, you give Dary’s character depth, not only in his relationship with his mother, but also in a romance he begins despite the accusations and possible jail time he faces. Can you talk about that? 

It was important that Dary is in a bad place mentally – in his social life, in his work – at the beginning of the story. He has frustrations, and that is the buildup to the violence. It is “I don’t feel good with myself.” He meets this girl [Aly], who is interesting, and he wants to have something with her, but this frustration comes back. I can understand that – not to the extent he takes it – but this idea that he wants to dominate because he doesn’t have control in other aspects of his life. When I did some research on people who commit assault, the power of denial after the fact is really important – the way your brain helps you not face what you did. I talked with lawyers who will have proof and show it to the [perpetrators] and they will say, “No, it’s not me.” It’s a survival mechanism. You cannot admit to something that will destroy you. We tried to imagine Dary’s life, what his childhood was like, his relationship with his mum. There are more layers. I cannot explain violence or the extent of it, but I can explore the path that leads to that. 

A Sister

When you look at the way the justice system works, we ask the guy to defend himself. But when you are scared to face jail time, or any other punishment, is that the right mindset to think about what you did and question yourself? Is he in the right place, and does the justice system help him realise what he had done?

Anna is an interesting character. She is troubled by the case, and we get a hint about why that is in a scene where she is driving with her teenage son. Can you talk about her purpose in the film? As you indicate, she is the impartial, understanding observer Aly needs to speak to her about what happened. 

When I started writing the character, I had this feeling that she is not supposed to be in the aftermath of [Aly’s] story, but she wants to be part of it. She provides the balance. She was there that night. She heard Aly and knows the truth even though she doesn’t have proof. She felt it. She is an ally, a ghost ally, and is waiting for an opportunity to do something for Aly and for herself. What can she do with that emotion? She has a history as you indicate. Maybe Anna didn’t get resolution with her story, and Aly’s call awakens her [past trauma]. 

When we shot the short film, we decided the actresses should not meet. It was interesting for them to not know who was on phone. At end of the shoot, they met, and that was moving for me. Even though they didn’t live the real story, we all went through something together. This moment was in my head, and that’s what I wanted to capture in this story. This way of connecting influenced Anna and Aly.

The opening scene in the car is suitably claustrophobic. But you have great shots and allow viewers to sit with the characters of Aly and Dary. Can you talk about your visual approach to telling the story?

The short is different, because I felt it was the right way to tell the story of that night. You need it to be claustrophobic because it’s a nightmare for the character. After that, we had a discussion of should we film every character the same way – at a distance? We tried to look at them with no judgment, but we could see the characters indicate some nuance that we needed to add. I felt that Dary, when he is lying to himself, it was difficult to film him in closeup, so we worked to create lighting that made it difficult to see him. We worked on the characters and their journey, and what their emotions were in each scene so we could shoot them in a way that expressed them visually.

The last act of the film takes place two years later as the case comes to trial. It’s interesting that you include very few scenes in the courtroom, with the verdict being heard in a cell phone message after the trial. I appreciated those decisions. Can you discuss why you took this oblique approach to something that most filmmakers would use as the central focus? 

We start the film with three characters, who go their separate ways, until they meet again in a different way. We thought, which point of view would be most interesting to hear the verdict? I felt this decision [about the case] doesn’t change anyone’s life much. It is not the most important thing that happens at the end of the story. What was interesting about the courtroom is that Dary is not at ease with the setup. Anna is looking at him, and he listens back to the call. But that is not what makes the story. It is about what is outside the courtroom – what Anna chooses to do, and what Dary realises afterwards. That is what interested me. I didn’t want to focus on the courtroom. It’s more about the lives of the characters and how they are facing things. We can’t sense Aly not wanting to go to court because whether he is convicted or not, she is not happy. She will not get what she needs from the procedure. The three characters need to settle their story together in other ways.

About The Author

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, San Francisco Bay Times, and MovieJawn. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2. He teaches and curates short films, and is the chair of Cinema Salon, a weekly film discussion group. His primary cinematic interests are short films, queer cinema, and films from Latin American. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and GALECA.

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