For every budding French cinephile, La Fémis is the dream. The elite film school, situated in Paris, is commonly known as the temple of cinema. It is the skeleton key to success in the French film industry, the European film industry, and the world of movies beyond. More Cannes, Berlin, and Venice prizewinners have passed through its iron gates than any other institution in the world.
Claire Simon's documentary The Competition (Le Concours) opens with an image of this iron gate, which stands sentry in the film school's iconic courtyard, where the likes of François Ozon and Arnaud Desplechin first cut their teeth on script ideas. This symbolism is anything but accidental. Simon's film provides a no-holds-barred look into the arduous five-month admissions process to the extremely selective filmmaking academy. By gaining unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the admissions process with the school's gatekeepers, Simon's camera delivers a subtle reproach to the competitive, and seemingly biased, manner by which great filmmakers are "born."
By taking us behind the scenes of the admissions process with the school's gatekeepers, Simon's camera delivers a subtle reproach to the manner by which great filmmakers are seemingly "born."
The film begins at the first stage of the entrance exam, in which prospective students watch a film clip and are tasked with writing a critical essay over the course of three hours. The test is then graded by a jury, which is comprised of working professionals in the French film industry, selected by the president of La Fémis. In this first round of deliberations, few of the judges seem to agree on what constitutes a quality essay; some regard the very same essay as exceptional, while others deem it abominable. Eventually, though, grades are given, and cuts are made.
Next, on to the specialized exams. La Fémis accepts students for various disciplines: directing, producing, screenwriting, cinematography, sound, editing, production design, continuity, and film distribution. Most of the programs accept just six students per year, with a total enrollment of 40; often, more than 500 people apply for a single category. In the film, we see screenwriting candidates build a one-sentence theme, which they are individually assigned, into a story. They then have to explain their narrative to a three-person panel of professional screenwriters. Directing candidates, meanwhile, are given a scene, a crew, a set, equipment, and actors. They are tasked with filming the scene while the judges look on at their creative process.
"It's like a temple of cinema. Everyone who enters is watched by the masters. There is this sort of religious, very competitive feeling."
After the practical tests, the third and final selection round involves in-person interviews with a panel of judges, in which the candidates are interrogated about their motivations for applying, their backgrounds, and their ambitions in filmmaking. This is where things get thorny. After the judges meet the aspiring filmmakers, a litany of prejudice comes to the fore. The majority-white jurors speak openly, and sometimes flippantly, about gender, race, and class, revealing the social, moral, and political forces that influence who gains entrance to the school. The mechanics of the jury's decision-making are further called into question when they disagree about the personality attributes of the candidates, such as one prospective director whom many on the panel labeled as "crazy." A jury member reminds her colleagues that they cannot accept candidates on the basis of likability.
Richard Brody, writing about the film in the New Yorker, expressed how he believes the jury's conservatism impacts who gets the resources and the training to make movies:
Rather than advance French filmmaking traditions, the school preserved them, in ossified form. Rather than educating students to break out of trends and customs, the school has developed class after class of good students, grateful and obedient, sliding the stories of their lives and times into familiar and preëxisting packages of production and cinematic form alike, squeezing themselves and their foremost inspirations into the norms of the industry—or perhaps they were even selected for the school on the basis of their likelihood of doing so.
No Film School caught up with Simon to discuss how she gained access to the gated institution, why her work draws comparisons to Frederick Wiseman, the importance of attending film school today, and more.
No Film School: You were the head of directing at La Fémis for a while, correct?
Claire Simon: Yeah. I was not the only one. There were different heads.
NFS: What did you learn about teaching film in general while you were there?
Simon: I was tutoring students in the directing department. I was following their script, following their editing, trying to give them advice, and analyzing their work.
It's a very psychological job. It's more being a psychoanalyst than a filmmaker, because the school is very intense, and there are so few students. For some of them, when they're accepted into the school, they think their whole job is done.
Also, for the students of the directing department...all the other students are envious about the fact that they are directors. It's not easy for them. They have a lot of work because they have to have a new project every two or three months. And it's very difficult to enter in the directing department. If there are 1,250 candidates, which was the case when I filmed, there were like, 600 for directing that applied, and then there are only six who are accepted. So, the competition is crazy.
This is a very important school. It's the most important school in France. And so, it's like a temple of cinema. Everyone who enters is watched by the masters. There is this sort of religious, very competitive feeling. And I hate that, I must say. I had to go through that for 10 years.
I didn't go to film school myself; I just did a workshop, and I went to regular university. It was a great pleasure for me to try to give to the students the film education I would have dreamed to have had.
"I said to the students, 'It doesn't matter what camera you use. What matters is what you can film, and what you have in mind.'"
NFS: Which is what, exactly?
Claire Simon: I had writers come with me to the Gare Du Nord Station for two weeks, watching life happen. There were small things that I could do to help them because they were so panicked about telling the whole truth about themselves, their lives, their love, and everything. I said, "Go on the internet, and there will be a lot of stories available to write a script tomorrow." There was this very good journalist who used to do that in radio--he would pick up stories from the world every day. I made him come, for example, and train them to not to be so interested in themselves, but more about the world. But of course, when you are young, sometimes you are more interested in yourself and your difficulties. But I tried all the time to get them out into the world, as much as I could. It was not easy in that very tough school.
When I arrived, were no digital cameras. I went crazy. I said, "It's impossible. I will make this happen immediately!." Because you know, everyone wanted big film cameras. But it was in 2003. And I remember that it was a scandal because I said, "Buy some cheap video cameras, at least, so that everyone can make sketches." I wanted everyone to use the video cameras in casting, and you can use a video camera without a crew so you can begin to find your way into a documentary story.
It was the old wave—a sort of aristocracy of technique. It's a man's field. I said to the students, "It doesn't matter what camera you use. What matters is what you can film, and what you have in mind." Of course, everyone is afraid. They think, "If I don't have a good camera, that's why I'm not making a good film."
Girls are better with this. They don't believe in that object fetish, most of them. When you say, "Take the other camera. Do it on the other way," They are much more ready. And the boys, it was the instrument, their power...it was more difficult.
Credit: MetrographNFS: So you didn't attend film school yourself?
Simon: I went to university and took some courses, but I worked a lot as an editor. And editing is a film school.
NFS: I completely agree. Do you think that going to a film school, like La Fémis, is as important as it once was?
Simon: I think it's more important because there are more people wanting to get into the profession. The network is very important when you are in film school. It's important to have friends to discuss cinema with—friends that are involved, that want to make films. So you can discuss your script and editing with them.
NFS: It's interesting to hear you say that a lot of your film students were self-reflective in terms of the stories they wanted to tell. I noticed that a lot of the judges were deliberating about personal attributes, like whether certain prospective students were too showy, or too crazy, or not able to communicate well enough. To what extent do you think that personal attributes actually make their way into somebody's filmmaking?
Simon: Well, it's a big question. Obviously, there is only one real way to judge a filmmaker: by their work. Your work frees you from your personality. I find it very heavy, the judgment about personality. But it's true that when I was directing the directing department, I could see sometimes the students' psychology come through in their films. Many were also [trying to channel] the influence of the masters. I just tried to help the students to get rid of it all.
A filmmaker can be any kind of person. What is important is the film. You have great personalities making not very good films, and the contrary, awful people making very good movies. These judges are just looking for things they can grab to make a sort of judgment [about whether to accept the student]. But this judgment can't be definitive. In fact, it's more social than personal.
You can see, in the film, that there are only two moments where a candidate cannot speak. One is the girl from Africa—she can't remember the title of her favorite film because she talked about how her sister is an escort. Then there is the Chilean boy who is very shy and suddenly can't talk. You can see the different seduction of those two silences. One is terrible. She's losing her chance [at being admitted to the school]. And the other one, it doesn't matter because he's very charming. Someone on the jury calls this out: "Oh, you see? He's very nice looking. He comes from Chile. He doesn't say one thing, and you're all completely seduced." Of course, they were also basing their opinions on the candidates' written applications. But you have to use any kind of characteristics that you can grab to make your judgment.
NFS: The judges often say that they're looking for someone with a vision. And yet, La Fémis has been under scrutiny for producing students who kind of maintain the French aristocracy— the status quo. Listening in on the judges, for you I'm sure and for the audience, revealed a lot of interesting prejudices. What surprised you that you saw in this regard?
Simon: Well, you said it, I think. What is probably not that obvious for foreigners is that all the judges are professionals. And the professionals in France, even though they can be well known and everything, are living in a very precarious state. They don't know whether they'll have a job in three months. So they want to maintain the class of the people of cinema. I see it in a very anthropological point of view as if they were truck drivers who had no certainty of their employment. They would choose people like themselves to hire. It's the making a social group. The judges want the cinema they know and believe in to continue.
The good thing—and it depends on the composition of the jury—is the fact that at least in the end, when they deliberate, a lot of different arguments and preferences show up. Sometimes, prejudice doesn't work against someone, because there is more to discuss. For example, one of the candidates in the film was a bartender who has worked very hard to make independent films. If a woman on the jury didn't fight for him so much, he wouldn't have been accepted. But he is, in the end. It was her opinion against everyone, and she won. Because there are six or seven people at the end of the jury, at least it's possible to fight for someone. This woman lost some of her favorite candidates, but won him acceptance.
"There is only one real way to judge a filmmaker: by their work. Your work frees you from your personality."
NFS: Was gaining access to filming at the school very difficult? I can imagine there is a culture of secrecy since the school is so elite.
Simon: Yeah. I decided to quit my job there before doing the film—to quit definitively. The director of La Femis asked me to be the President of the jury the year after, and I said, "You're crazy." He said, "But you know the competition very well." I said, "Yes, but that's why I'm not going to be the President of the jury."
NFS: Was it difficult to get everyone to agree to participate in the film? Including the jury?
Simon: It was difficult. There are some parts I couldn't film because some people didn't want me to film. But I had the support of the director of La Femis, who felt that I was able to do something fair, so he helped me a lot. But even friends of mine didn't want me to film them. I said, "But how can you dare say that? We have to show the French reality to the people, to see how it's done. You are paid because I pay my taxes. And you have to show what you're doing." You know? I felt crazy about it.
A documentary filmmaker didn't want me to film him. He was judging the editing exam. I was so furious. That meant I couldn't film the editing competition. In the film, you see scriptwriting, directing, set, and everything. But editing, I couldn't film because of him. It's incredible, not wanting to be filmed, being a cinema professional. It's like being a noble before the Revolution.
NFS: Were the students generally eager to participate in the documentary?
Simon: They had to sign a paper if they didn't want to be in it. I gave them the possibility to say afterward, if they were not admitted to the school, for example: "I don't want to be in the film." It was very easy. We had no problems with that.
Wiseman would kill me if he knew this, but it was my only solution with the professionals who were the judges: I said, "If you can come to see the film, I will show it to you when the editing is finished. And you will be able to see your part, and to agree to be in it." So quite a lot of them came.
"Sometimes, I only film the people who are listening to a conversation, and not the people who are saying things."
NFS: Speaking of Wiseman, you said in an interview that you use the Wiseman method, but not the Wiseman approach. What did you mean by that?
Simon: Probably it's a shortened version of what I said. I very much admire Wiseman's work, but he is not always filming stories. He's filming a place in a period of time. It's like when you go to the North Pole and you take some ice, and you analyze it afterward. He takes two months, and he gives a sort of picture of the eternity of a place. There is no time in his script. On the contrary, especially in this film, but in nearly all of my films, there is a lot of time and script. It's a story. It has a beginning and an end.
I was completely committed to film the machine—the process. And not just one student or one judge. And so, from point of view it was more like Wiseman because I was filming something abstract. But the story was the story of the process. And Wiseman doesn't very often film a process. He films beautiful, incredible scenes that are explaining to us how a place works. I mean, I really admire his work. But there is no script. It's not very complicated.
I don't know about in the States, but in France, nobody has really written very interesting things about documentary, or about Wiseman, because they don't understand the relationship between reality and the portrait of reality. So, you know, at the end of the film, they say, "You just put your camera in a school courtyard?" I say, "No, I don't do that. I make a film. I know where I'm going." But it's good because it means the reality is so strong. It's so seductive. People forget that it's all thought through and constructed. There is nothing in this film that is random. Everything is there because you wanted it to be there.
NFS: Exactly. The editing process, then, is paramount. Did you edit your film?
Simon: No, I edited with two editors, in fact. So I'm not like Wiseman at all! [Laughs]
But the difference is that I film my own movies. And so, my relationship to the camera, to the shots, is very different from Wiseman, because I take different kinds of risks. He is asking the cinematographer to do close-ups and listening to people. So he can edit and understand what's going on, and he speaks in code with his cinematographer. Instead, I've got a sound engineer, and I shoot very differently than Wiseman's cinematographers. I always try to do single shots. Sometimes, I only film the people who are listening to a conversation, and not the people who are saying things, because I feel that it's more important to film it that way. So if you look at the timeline, it's probably less edited than Wiseman, because I take the risks on set.
NFS: I found that so interesting when the camera would be on a person who was listening, and then suddenly the person who was speaking would say something more interesting, and you'd find your way back to them. I liked watching you make those decisions in real time.
Simon: I'm interested in giving this feeling that you are in the middle of a dialogue. This is cinema; it's not just talking heads.