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“A Lot of Stories in France are Not Told”: Claire Simon on The Competition

The Competition

Claire Simon’s The Competition is a sometimes painfully funny documentary about a subject that doesn’t seem humorous at all: the rigorous admission process, heavy on interviews in front of panels, for La Fémis, one of France’s premiere film schools. Its alumni include Claire Denis and Arnaud Desplechin, and its teachers have included Simon herself. One of France’s premiere documentarians, only with The Competition is Simon finally receiving a US release for her work—it’s the first film to be put out by the newly established Metrograph Pictures.

Simon follows the process from beginning to end, with students and their interviewing juries speaking in terms that are both personal and philosophical about filmmaking—it’s a form of discourse that’s not common in the US. But beneath that seemingly admirable level of engagement with the art and craft of film, there’s another narrative, one about access, and lack thereof. Simon’s skepticism about the types of students, and stories, that La Fémis does and doesn’t permit shines through. To tease out some of these nuances, I sat down with Simon last month.

Filmmaker: There’s this language that everyone uses, both the people who are conducting the interviews and the students themselves. They talk about film in a way that is very poetic, personal and French. They think about the image and what the image means. It’s inconceivable to me that somebody being admitted to UCLA or NYU on an undergraduate level would be asked to talk about “cinema.” Do you think that language is a good way to talk about film?

Simon: The thing I thought was very attractive, even when I worked in that school, was that everyone was always telling a story all the time. When they come, the candidates try to have a story that is convincing for the juries. Before the beginning of shooting, I thought that probably the students would talk differently. I was struck by the simplicity of what they were saying. Really, they were trying to find stories in which they could be represented. In fact, this is the main problem: a lot of stories in France are not told in this competition, because a lot of people don’t think that it’s for them. So, you have one or two kinds of stories that are told.

Filmmaker: There’s the one girl who comes in and the interviewers get very agitated because she can’t name literally a single movie that is interesting to her.

Simon: Yeah, it’s a typical misunderstanding. It’s a racist scene. The two filmmakers who are asking her [questions] are very nice, apart from this scene. They thought that she was the daughter of a famous African politician. That’s why they were quite mean to her. She’s asked by one of the two filmmakers, who I like very much, “Your sister, what does she do?” “She lives in London.” “How come? It’s such an expensive city.” “She’s a sort of escort,” she says.[For the questioner] to not at least say, “Oh, I’m sorry”—something to help the girl, because it’s very violent to [have to] say that when you are going through an exam, no? So then, she has no memory of any film title. she says before is, “My father is a politician, but I think politics are bullshit, and that all politicians are corrupted. The only way to change things is cinema.” That’s what she says, and she’s quite profound. She had enough energy and desire, but she was not made for that school.

Filmmaker: When you were there filming and saw that, were you like, “Oh, that’s a racist interaction?”

Simon: Oh yes. I couldn’t believe it.

Filmmaker: Was it difficult for you to control your body language because of your reaction?

Simon: No.

Filmmaker: Because you’ve been doing this for so long?

Simon: No, it’s because I believe in cinema.

Filmmaker: That’s a good answer, but have you had to train yourself over the years to not react in this type of situation? It’s such a small room and you know those people.

Simon: Yes, of course. It’s very tense. I was on the final jury once. The president was Raoul Peck, the African filmmaker, and he did not ask the same questions at all. The last jury [in the film] was only asking questions about cinema, which was not the case with Peck, who is asking questions about life and the world.

Filmmaker: One of the questions that comes up in the film is, we want to find people from the suburbs, but how do we find them? It’s a question of geographical access. All of the inequities that are built into the process of the interview, do in some way realistically prepare candidates for what they’ll encounter when they actually try to make films. It’s not like people get more understanding and the system becomes more accommodating once they get out of film school. The flaws of the interview process and the acceptance are the same flaws they’re going to encounter their entire careers. So maybe it is helpful.

Simon: Of course, yes. Even during their studies, it’s very tough, especially for the student directors, because everyone is focused on them. They are the chiefs of the teams, so, everyone is very jealous of them and they have a bad time [throughout all their time] in the school, unless they have good other director friends. I was telling them, “You have time, but it’s going to be much worse when you’re out.”

Filmmaker: What’s your preparation process like now? You knew the length of the process. You knew how many stages there would be. That probably helps a little bit because you don’t know what will happen within each scene, but you know exactly when it’ll begin and when it’ll end.

Simon: Yes, it’s a script.

Filmmaker: You’ve made narrative films before, but is this the first time that you’ve made a documentary where you knew exactly where it would begin and end? Did it change your process?

Simon: No, I always do this. Sometimes people say, especially about this film, that it’s Wiseman’s style or something like that. It’s not, because I’m filming the script. I’m filming a story. It’s always a process with a beginning and an end, not at all Wiseman’s system, which is two months and no story, no characters. I really like Wiseman, but it’s a completely different point of view, because he’s not at all filming a story. He goes for two months. It’s a sort of eternal point of view. It’s a description, it’s like a painting. It’s like when you go to the North Pole and take a piece of ice. He takes this piece of ice and says, “This is it.” But it’s not the process.

Filmmaker: When each part of the process had been completed, did you sit down and start doing assemblies, or did you wait until it was all done?

Simon: No, I waited until it was all done. Filming was quite boring, because it’s always the same. It asks for a lot of concentration and faith, because sometimes you think, “Ah, I will never get anything interesting.” First, I gave a young editor the task to do a selection. I watched it with her and said, “You forgot this, you forgot that.” But we narrowed the footage from, I don’t know, more than 100 hours to seven hours, or something like that. And then, we edited from that. Sometimes, I would go back to the footage with another editor. He began to edit one or two scenes and put one interview after the other. That was absolutely not interesting. I said, “If we don’t see the discussions between each interview, it’s useless making the film.”

Filmmaker: Where were you standing? Are you just trying to be in the most out of the way place?

Simon: No, I try to have a good camera position. I move the camera on the tripod, but I don’t change places.

Filmmaker: When the candidate comes into the room, they presumably already know you’re in there.

Simon: Of course. They sign the paper.

Filmmaker: Did you worry that you were throwing off their concentration or anything? They can see you’re moving the camera quite actively to follow, so I was thinking, if I was in the room, I would be like, “This person changed their camera to focus back on me, I wonder what I’m doing.”

Simon: No. In a very important moment in life, you film. So it means it’s the moment that’s important. One guy, he was not sure, and I said, “Look, I am your ally. I’m not on that side. I’m not judging you.”

Filmmaker: When you’re choosing to pan, are you looking at the whole room or are you looking through the lensfinder?

Simon: I only look through the lensfinder.

Filmmaker: So it’s a little bit of a leap of faith every time you move, because you might miss somebody’s reaction or something else.

Simon: Oh yes. I always miss things. It’s a movement. It’s completely instinctive. I have an eye disease, so certain days I have an assistant. I have to give him the frame one or two times to do the camera work, and it was very difficult to explain to him, even though he was my student and everything. I was telling him, “Just listen,” and then touching him [to cue a pan], but it’s really completely instinctive. It’s to make a scene, to make a moment. That is very opposite from the way the Wiseman guys are shooting, because they shoot for the editing and I don’t. I take the risk of one shot, and then we will see how I edit it. I don’t think I am a very good cinematographer, but this is my commitment, to film a moment.

Filmmaker: When you say you’re not a good cinematographer, what do you mean by that?

Simon: Because I do things that are really, really bad sometimes. But I don’t mind. I prefer to be like that, and to be in the energy of the moment.

Filmmaker: Did you always shoot on a tripod?

Simon: Yeah. No, there is a film I did with actresses called God’s Offices, about family planning. I couldn’t do it on a tripod because it was shot reverse shot in a sequence shot. So I had to move. But I think the tripod is perfect.

Filmmaker: You think the tripod is perfect. I guess it helps if you get bored, but you’re always trying to focus, even if you get bored, right? But you’re not actually holding the camera. Otherwise, it’d be exhausting because you’re shooting eight hours a day.

Simon: That’s right. Also, you’re the first viewer. So the thing is to be in a good situation to be the first viewer.

Filmmaker: Are you standing when you do this?

Simon: Yes.

Filmmaker: And you’ll just stand the whole time and take breaks between?

Simon: No breaks. I’m in good shape. I do gym, yoga, bicycle.

Filmmaker: If you get bored while you’re shooting, what do you do? Do you just bring yourself back to the moment?

Simon: This is a big problem with digital. I don’t know if it’s because I began shooting film, but I still feel this guilt of too much shooting. On the other hand, afterwards I think I haven’t shot enough, things are lacking. Sometimes I feel sick. It’s a very long, difficult process.

Filmmaker: What’s the most difficult part?

Simon: To get to the center of the scene, which happens in the editing—to transform a very long time into a narrative.

Filmmaker: But in the moment of filming, that doesn’t cause you too much difficulty? Even if you can’t see it in the moment, you trust your instincts and you keep doing that?

Simon: Yeah, yeah. That’s why it takes so much energy.

Filmmaker: Does the filmmaking feel really physical to you?

Simon: Oh yeah.

Filmmaker: Has it always felt this physical to you?

Simon: Yes. I was always ashamed that it could be felt by the viewer. Then I realized that it was important for the viewer to feel that I was behind the camera and that it was my choice to do that, film this and that. Because that tradition with cinematography is to be behind the camera and then be transparent But it’s a physical commitment for myself. If I do fiction, the actors tell me it’s very important that I am shooting. It changes everything for them.

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