Inside La Fémis: Claire Simon Uncovers the Politics of Film School

Claire Simon begins her new documentary The Competition with a shot of young filmmakers chatting outside the locked gates of La Fémis, the most prestigious film school in France, patiently awaiting an opportunity to be judged by a panel of industry standard-bearers. It’s an image of professionalism at odds with some of the most vibrant and rebellious histories of French cinema, evoking the very conditions that caused a generation of filmmakers to reject “the tradition of quality” and create their own vernacular in the French New Wave. However, the eager students are more interested in the access La Fémis offers than storming the gates, and Simon’s film is not about aesthetic revolution but a portrait of how cultural institutions resist change.

Simon focuses on La Fémis’s infamously grueling admissions process—a series of exams, technical challenges, and interviews worthy of a reality show—as a microcosm of the institution at large. The school—formerly known as IDHEC, whose alumni roster brims with legendary figures such as Alain Resnais, Rithy Panh, Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Louis Malle, and Costa-Gavras—combines postgraduate technical training and professional development that grooms the next generation of the French film industry. A former instructor there, Simon is sympathetic to the intentions of the faculty and the ambitions of the students, who get access to some of the most renowned working directors in the Francophone world. Acceptance confers an air of cinematic nobility before students have made their first film.

At the same time, Simon’s own trajectory provides a rebuke to the ivory tower (“I was too arrogant for film school. Getting authorization by doing films my own way felt more exciting than being taught.”). She began her film education in a workshop founded by the famed ethnographer Jean Rouch and began making films in the early 1990s, when there were few female documentarians working in France beyond Agnès Varda and Chantal Akerman. For nearly thirty years she’s moved between documentary and narrative, finding the right form for each project. Her previous works include 1998’s Recreations, an anthropological study of children at play; 2003’s Mimi, a beguiling portrait of a middle-aged woman; the fictional Gare du Nord and the documentary Human Geography, a pair of companion films she made in 2013 about the same site; and last year’s collaborative docudrama Young Solitude.

For her latest, Simon had incredible access to the interviews, jury panels, and closed-door sessions used to assess prospective students. The result is a candid look at the way a culture unconsciously excludes, even when it is consciously trying to be more inclusive. I spoke with Simon at Metrograph last week while she was in town for the theatrical run of The Competition, the first of her films to be distributed in the U.S. and the first release of Metrograph Pictures.

Can you start by talking a bit about La Fémis and your relationship with the school?

Well, it’s the most important film school in France and one of the most important in the world, which sometimes leads to them having a bit of a traditional way of thinking about cinema. For example, I was the first documentarian to teach there. It was 2002 and there were no video cameras. I thought it was a scandal. It took me six months to convince them that it was irresponsible for them not to have video cameras. Fortunately, in the middle of my tenure, there was a student rebellion and I was the only director to stay. We had a big fight with people from outside who wanted to storm the castle. I stayed for one year and completely redid the programs. But it’s difficult because the program at La Fémis is unique. It’s like the Ivy League. It’s not like a university where you learn and figure out what you want to do. The idea is that when you enter the school, you are already proficient.

It’s like finishing school. You’re being groomed for something.

Yes. I should say, the former director and the filmmakers are all very open-minded and ready to try different things. It’s not that the people are stupid, it’s the system. That’s why I made the film.

I have seen several of your films now, and in each of them you tailor your approach to the subject matter. Here you are doing a Wiseman-esque institutional study.

There is a misunderstanding that in documentary you don’t have forms. On the contrary, of course you do. Each film is a different pattern. I admire Wiseman, who is using the same pattern and developing it, but it’s very different from what I’m doing in The Competition. Wiseman shows the state of what an institution is, like an eternal portrait. I’m filming in time; it’s a story. I wanted to show this competition process as a machine, without taking a candidate or a juror as a protagonist. I’m very interested in stories and what is a story. I think documentary can show us another way to tell a story. With this film, I was surprised that there was suspense even though there were no characters.

I think you recognize the tensions if you’ve ever been on either side of an interview process.

The question of interviewing is central to our society. It’s interesting from an anthropological point of view to see what’s going on between the older generation and the younger candidates. You see it in the form of the interview. You can’t just interview people, you have to show what’s going on in the interview.

Can you talk a bit about how you shot the interviews to capture this dynamic?

I film very intuitively. I have done quite a lot of films about interviews. I made a fiction film called God’s Offices based completely on documentary interviews, and so I’ve thought a lot about what it is to film an interview as a cinematographic moment and not as a talking head. It’s very important to see how listening drives the talking. Sometimes you feel that the person who is not talking is dictating the words to the person who is talking. Focusing on the people who are listening gives you a stronger feeling of the moment, that you are in the middle of a conversation. In The Competition, I was able to do it very instinctively, because I had developed this practice of filming dialogue. It’s very boring to shoot this kind of film. It’s always the same and you have hundreds of hours of footage, but the important thing is to remain completely sensitive to what’s going on all the time.

I imagine there’s more to the application process for La Fémis than these interviews and jury panels. Can you talk about keeping the focus solely on this part of the process, where these students are facing a firing squad of professionals in the field they want to go into?

They say the interview is the most important part of the process. They are supposed to get an idea of the personality of the candidate and to choose a person rather than a set of skills.

And they prioritize the personality because each class needs to be able to work together as a cohesive whole?

Yes. I mean, that’s what they say, but I don’t believe it. It would be very difficult to know beforehand.

This subjective approach also leads to tension. There are very blunt, idealized conversations about diversity among the judges, but they are all white and keep prioritizing students who will “fit in” and ultimately continue the existing culture.

Yeah, it’s obvious.

There is one girl from Côte d’Ivoire, who freezes when she’s asked to name a movie in her interview, but everything else she says—

It’s beautiful, everything she says is beautiful. The jurors thought that she was the daughter of an important African political figure. Right before they ask her to name a film, they ask her what her sister does in London and she says that she’s an escort. Once she’s said that, how can she remember the title of a film? She’s so devastated. She’s revealed something very private and humiliating about her sister.

They were clearly trying to trap her when she was initially evasive, assuming she didn’t want to admit her sister was living off family wealth in London.

Yes, that’s right. I couldn’t believe it. The woman who was questioning her is really nice. She’s making good films, she’s really interesting and the fact that she didn’t understand what was going on—I couldn’t believe it.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is a scene where a group of women debate whether or not they are being too harsh on assholes, which is funny in an institution that focuses on collaboration, but it gets them to an interesting point: they can’t just pick the students they like.

This is very important. This is beautiful. The woman who says it is Gilles Deleuze’s daughter. This is really so sharp. You can’t just choose people you like: it’s a real philosophical point of view.

The larger context of the film begs the question “why do you like who you like?”

Why is the silence of the girl from Côte d’Ivoire so bad when the silence of a different candidate is considered thoughtful? Everyone has preconceptions. When I did the selection the president was Abderrahmane Sissako, and the discussions were completely different. We only talked about what was going on in the world. It was the complete opposite. He insisted that everyone who was rejected understood why. The focus was on understanding why people were out rather than why people were in.

What was the reaction of the faculty when they saw this in the documentary?

They don’t know exactly what’s good and bad in what they said. The teachers and the directors of the departments didn’t think anyone would be interested in the film. They didn’t realize that it’s so emblematic. It’s like football, it’s a dream for a lot of young people—why wouldn’t it be interesting? But the director of the school, Marc Nicolas, was convinced that I was right and he helped me a lot. In a way, Raoul Peck, the president of La Fémis, answered the question by making another class for the children of immigrants and for people with less formal education. It’s a one-year program and admission is based on films they’ve made. It’s an interesting answer.

But it’s separate?

Oh, yes. And they don’t talk to each other. There is a very big difference between the programs, but it’s a big step.

What did the students think of the film?

A guy who didn’t get in came to a Q&A and he said he loved the film and that it was such a relief to see how it works. That was my aim. It’s a civic idea, to show the selection of a state school. I show it at high schools that prepare students for the La Fémis competition and the teachers say the students are completely relieved, they don’t even want to apply anymore. It’s all so relative. They realize it’s a matter of the taste of whoever happens to be the judge and not the absolute judgment of God. There is a sociologist who works on the idea of talent and discerning talent who has written quite a bit about the film. He says the more people who are involved in a discussion, the better the judgment will be. But, I think, what is important is to not believe too much in someone else’s judgment.