“Young People More and More Dream of Making Films”: Claire Simon on Le Concours
The French state film school La Fémis is the closest thing to a state-sanctioned religion under the secular French administation. Situated in Paris, it is the French temple of cinema, the film school that has educated more Cannes, Berlin and Venice prizewinners than any other faculty in the world. To go to La Fémis has become a badge of honor; the only trouble is that it’s seemingly impossible to get accepted into it. The entrance exam involves a critical written essay on a film clip, a presentation of a potential film project with research, and a discussion on film during a meeting with a board of industry professionals. Each stage is like a guillotine. So how does one get in?
That question is seemingly answered in Claire Simon’s engrossing documentary Le concours (Graduation). A former head of the school’s directing department, the award-winning documentarian has been given unprecedented access to each stage of the application process at La Fémis. Simon is as infatuated with the professionals who make the decisions as the students applying. In doing so, she shows how ingrained prejudices are hard to shake. It’s a film about dreams turning to nightmares, but also the glory of stories. Filmmaker discussed Le concours, which received its North American premiere this weekend at DOC NYC, with Simon after its successful premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
Filmmaker: What made you want to make this film?
Simon: I wanted to show what I know about the school. I was head of the directing department for some time and there was this girl, Alice Douard, who was finishing the directing course. She made a film [Extrasystole] about a student trying to get into the École normale supérieure, a high school that is very hard to get into in Paris. She made a fiction film, which I thought was such a good idea because instead of dealing with people living in misery, which some people don’t know about, she filmed her contemporaries. It was more sincere than filming homeless people, which students film a lot. So I thought that I have for such a long time been in those meetings and someone should portray those people making decisions. As an anthropologist, we should portray what we are. So I talked with the president of the school and said, “I would like to stop working in the school and make a film about it.” The film is about the desire of young people and what’s going on between the elder generation and the young people.
Filmmaker: So why deal only with the entrance exam?
Simon: I said I would like to begin with the day that the doors open to the public. Originally, I had an idea that was wider and then I decided, no, I only wanted to do the entrance exam, because then it talks about all the entrance exams in all the high schools in France. All these kids think that if they don’t pass the exam then their life is over.
Filmmaker: La Fémis is a film school that has such a strong reputation, but many people believe that in the generation where everyone has a camera on their phone, film school is not necessary. What’s your view?
Simon: I never did film school myself, except the Les atelier documentary workshop in Varan. Today, I think a lot of young people more and more dream of making films. Probably film is the most popular area for budding artists. In the beginning of the ’80s, I know that there were very few people trying to enter the school and now it’s so huge. Professionals are working in La Fémis and it’s a very part-time job. I made four or five feature films while I was teaching there. So I never did film school and I was dreaming of the school all the time. I was dreaming of what I would have liked to do if I was the student, but it’s a very complicated school, and so I couldn’t do exactly what I dreamt.
Filmmaker: The administrators of the school have a rule that they do not select the students who enter?
Simon: It’s French.
Filmmaker: What you mean by that?
Simon: It’s the idea of finding a very complicated system that looks fair, revolutionary and republican. It’s all about making a huge system that looks fair. There are no teachers in that school, because the idea is that only people that are practizing the profession know a little bit about that profession. But that is also like the NFTS, where I know Stephen Frears taught.
Filmmaker: So the administrators have an idea of everything being equal? Do you think the system of choosing is good?
Simon: It’s difficult to say. I think it’s not bad, but what would be better would be to have a very large entrance and it would go narrower and narrower from the desire of the students. I prefer to teach at university because university is very much more open and you are closer to the real desire of the students and you can teach in a more free way. I’m not sure that I agree with the competition to enter. I’ve been to a lot of schools abroad just to say hello, and I felt that probably it’s good that there is a selection in the entrance but not as hard, especially in directing. When people arrive, as long as they’ve made it through the entrance exam they think that they are directors and it’s not true.
Filmmaker: Was it easy to get the agreement of the school to make the film?
Simon: No. There were a lot of adults, not teachers but professionals, who didn’t want to be in the film. I thought that was a scandal, because they are paid by the school, so I explained to everyone that if you are still in the final cut, I will show you your part and then you can say if you agree or not to be in the film. Some of the teachers said, “We’re going to be judged,” and I said, “If you’re going to be judged then the film is not very good, because films are not about judging characters, it’s about seeing something happening.” They were very much afraid of being judged. Also I think that documentaries about the establishment are very interesting and much more difficult than documentaries about people in misery. Filming the establishment is like making everybody equal, putting everybody on the same level. They look like bakers and they are not any more stars at the cinema, so it was very difficult, but, I think it’s very interesting to film the establishment.
Filmmaker: Watching the film, it’s amazing to see what some of the teachers say. Was it hard to bite your tongue during filming?
Simon: Yes! Once — and this did not make it into the film, but I thought it was a scandal — there was one girl, she was very funny. As a job she read scripts for TV and suddenly a producer on the jury said, “Oh, it’s you!” and another director said, “What do you write on those scripts?” They were so furious. When we met at lunch time, I said that to them what I thought, that it’s bad that she’s not going to get admission because she’s part of the establishment. Finally she entered.
Filmmaker: What surprised you when making the film?
Simon: The projection of the adults. That’s why the same type of people keep getting into the school. Also, I was surprised by the beautiful innocence and desire of the young people applying to the school. What I loved the most was the oral exam, because you heard the thoughts of young people who were dreaming of taking their films to the public. I thought they were very nice. This girl who was giving a definition of what she likes about being in the cinema, who was saying we’re all sitting in room together and then it gets dark and you are alone — I thought it was beautiful and she was great. What she said moved me a lot. That was a surprise, because I didn’t know this part of the entrance process at all. But the big, big surprise was the first exam. I thought it was beautiful how these young kids were trying to write something about a scene and the concentration that they showed while they were sitting so close to each other.
Filmmaker: You film a lot of students who didn’t get into the school. Did they see the film? What did they think?
Simon: I don’t know. I haven’t seen them really. I think the film is not on their side, but it is a bit. I don’t know. We invited them and maybe the ones who didn’t enter the school, it’s a bad memory for them.
Filmmaker: There was a professional who is talking about watching a documentary on Nicolas Winding Refn and saying that he is a director who cannot communicate, which makes him a bad director. That seems odd! Do you think communication is necessary to making film?
Simon: No! Well, yes, for selling films but one of the reasons that people want to go to the film school is to be in the network. Of course if you don’t communicate then it difficult to be in the network, but to make films is another story.
Filmmaker: Did you see people become enemies because of the process?
Simon: Yes. In the final jury there were definitely enemies. It was quite uptight and also it featured a very old story — which is quite complicated and we didn’t really want to get too heavily into this— which is that often it became the technicians against the directors. It’s always like that. The point of view of the technicians, who are like kids, is not as important as the directors, especially in France where the idea of the director is that of the word of God.
Filmmaker: What are the advantages of going to La Fémis?
Simon: The good thing is that they have a lot of means to work and it is like a small Hollywood, a small studio system. Everyone has to work and get results. It’s great for people who want to enter a classical profession, I would say. But I had very good students at university as well, and two of them made films and didn’t go to La Fémis. I told them it is a good thing. If they had the strength to climb through the profession by themselves it is better.
Filmmaker: There is an idea now that film school is overrated, that you shouldn’t need it because from a young age everyone is using cameras.
Simon: Yes, but it’s very important to have a conversation between young people who want to enter the profession and older filmmakers. I always work with very young people, mostly former students of mine, and we speak a lot. What is important is to talk about what we see, what we are doing and I think that what we do is interesting in school.
Filmmaker: The other thing that I noticed in the film was that nearly every applicant, administrator and professional was white.
Simon: That’s France. France is part of a global world that doesn’t accept that it’s globalized, and that is unbelievable. But the president of La Fémis is black — Raoul Peck, the famous director — and he’s now starting to do good things. You have four or six people every year who are immigrants, or from poor backgrounds; they can compete to get into a one year course teaching techniques and make a new film that can be presented to all those in the industry. I found another thing called L’egalité des chance, which is from the former vice-president of L’Oreal, who is so rich that he made a foundation to help people from poor backgrounds and immigration compete in entrance exams. But where are the people from the suburbs who have the great ideas? Finding them, that is the problem.
Filmmaker: How did the administrators of the school react to the film?
Simon: Some are happy, because nobody has ever really made a film about the admission into the school. And the President of the school likes it. He knew that it wasn’t going to be very flattering, as I decided to focus on the entrance exam. Some of the head of departments said to me, “It’s nice, but I don’t know how interesting it is for people to watch that film.”
Filmmaker: It’s also a film about dreams and broken dreams?
Simon: Yes. Sometimes when you are in the school it feels like everybody is asleep and dreaming and telling stories continuously. When the candidates come, they are always telling stories. They are telling their life story or they tell the story that they are making up.
Filmmaker: The film follows the institution rather than people. Why did you decide on that?
Simon: No. I didn’t want to do that. It is the structure of the film that you can see every person freely. It is not psychological or personal. It’s the Frederick Weisman method, but it’s not the Wiseman approach because Wiseman makes films over two months and he doesn’t follow the script of reality. I follow the script of the examination entrance process and I wanted it to be completely distant from the people. Maybe in a Wiseman film you have one climax in five hours and it’s beautiful. It was obvious for me that it was abstract and it was the structure that I wanted to follow.