Claire Simon’s The Competition (Le Concours) begins, significantly, with the image of a locked gate—that of the Fondation Européenne pour les Métiers de l’Image et du Son, or, as it’s more popularly known, La Fémis. One of the most prestigious film schools in the world, offering hands-on training from working professionals, every year La Fémis attracts hundreds upon hundreds of applicants hoping to fill only fifty annual slots. This new film by Simon, one of France’s premiere nonfiction filmmakers, offers a unique look into the process whereby those lucky fifty are selected—a process involving examiners from the French film industry which is highly personal and idiosyncratic and subject to the vagaries of taste and personal prejudice.
The Competition previously screened at the Venice, Vienna, and BFI-London film festivals; the first ever theatrical release for Metrograph Pictures, and the U.S. theatrical debut for Simon, who was awarded the True Vision award at the True/False Film Festival. Funny, penetrating, and surprisingly suspenseful, this timely documentary offers not only a unique opportunity to see the inner workings of an institution at the very heart of the French film industry, but an invitation to look at the assumptions and roadblocks that shape any national film industry, and higher education in general. A masterful work of nonfiction that urges us to consider the system that nurtures or pushes aside would-be filmmakers, and encourages us to think about why we see the films that we see.
Aliza Ma: Welcome to the opening night of The Competition. On the surface, The Competition is a film about the admissions process of one of the most prestigious, cutthroat film schools in the world, La Fémis. It's located in the old studio lot of Pathé, and only about 5% of those who apply every year get in. Sometimes it feels like you're watching a thriller; on the other hand, as in all of Claire's films, she has a remarkable ability to distill these everyday subjects into deeply moving humanist portraits. And I'm grateful to say that Claire is with us this opening weekend. Please welcome Claire Simon to introduce her film.
Claire Simon: It's a very moving moment for me to show the film for the first time here in the U.S. And I'm so glad it is in this cinema, with the people who are programming and directing this cinema, because it's very interesting the [perspective] they have on new films. I’ve discovered that there are lots of films that I don't know. And it's a surprise for me, because we in France, we think we know all the cinema.
With The Competition, I was working for La Fémis for a long time, and was very interested in trying to make a film about the selection process, which I think is a very strong example of what our societies have chosen to do, and the conflict between generations. And I hope you will enjoy it. You begin with a thousand and two hundred and fifty people, and you end with fifty. This is the story. I hope you enjoy it.
Sierra Pettengill: I know you said that you were a teacher at La Fémis for a long time. Was there a particular point at which you decided this was a film that you needed to make, or a reason that you felt like it needed to be made?
Claire Simon: There are no teachers at La Fémis. It's just professionals. So I was with other filmmakers. I was the head of the directing department, and we would ask other directors to direct some workshops, and we were also organizing the students. But it’s not like you have a directing class, where you learn how to make a good film. That doesn't exist, fortunately. But there was Emmanuel Finkiel, and Jean-Paul Civeyrac, and other filmmakers. Everyone who is directing a department has to be a real professional working in his field. So we were not there all the time.
I had been there for a long time, and it's a very complicated school, there are so many departments, and everyone does things at the same time, and it's like... a Rubik's cube, you know? After ten years, I thought it was really far enough, and I should leave. I said to the director of the school, "I'm going to leave anyway. But as I am leaving, I'd like to make a film in the school."
SP: And what brought you to the admissions process, specifically?
CS: I always thought that the admissions process was really very important. Because then, like you see in the beginning of the film, it's the day when the doors of the school are open. And this was the first shot I did. And it struck me so much—four people behind the gate, until the guy who was responsible for the entrance exam said to the man who guards the school to go and open the door, then suddenly you had so many people coming in—young people, and their parents. I felt that this was the desire of the rest of the world, to get into that place, as if it was a Medieval castle. If I was only going to film the school inside, I would never capture that strong, very important desire of the rest of the world, and I was really committed to that desire. When I filmed that shot, I decided, and then I went to see the director [of La Fémis], and I said, "It's only the entrance exam."
SP: Something I was really struck by when I first saw it was that you very rarely see much of the work that the students are bringing with them. There's only a few shots that give you what they're presenting, or what they're making. There's the directing sequence, and then there's one with the production designer. But as an audience member, you have very little to go off of, in terms of their physical work. I found that that made me lean on my own biases more heavily. I'm looking at how people behave, act, what cues can I get about whether they're a good student or not.
CS: I was very much into confrontation. I think it's a very interesting thing in cinema—you can't decide when you film a dance competition, or a singing competition, and you never know if the competitors are good or not, as a viewer. Because cinema is not about that. It's not about judging if people are good or not. It's about what's going on in that sequence. You're not a judge, as a viewer. You're seeing what's going on, and why—the society, and the people. It’s obvious in a lot of documentaries, of course; you're not there to judge if the soldiers in the Wiseman film are good soldiers or not, for example—it’s not the point. The point is, what our society has built as a representation, and how it plays out in a confrontation, and this was more about one generation trying to open, or close, possibilities to young people. It doesn't mean that your work was good or not. So I think it's very important that the viewer is never put in a position of judgment. It's not because it's terrifying. It's just because it doesn't tell a story. It's useless, and you're probably wrong when you judge.
SP: I feel like when that information's given in a film, it's false. It's giving you a false idea that you know well enough to judge someone, when you actually have no...
CS: If you film a situation where someone is trying to get a job, you're not filming as if you were the person who is going to give the job. You are filming a situation, you know? You are filming profile. The viewer doesn't want to identify with the person who is going to choose whether you are going to have a job, or a flat, or to enter La Fémis. So it's really important, as a documentary filmmaker, to change a little bit, and not to be in that system. …I make films for the margins. So they know how we live.
SP: That sort of movement you were just talking about, of being between a confrontation or conversation… Can you talk about how you shot the film? Because I feel like you're often in that space, which is—you are getting these profiles, and you're between two people?
CS: I try to be in the middle of the scene, as a conversation. It's not talking heads. It's what's happening at that moment. It is a very important moment for the candidates. But it is, also, for the judges. I try to be in the place where I can tell, “This is a cinematographic scene,” and it's not just words with a head, where you only listen to the meaning of what they say. It's a situation, a dialogue. And, so, sometimes I prefer to watch how people are listening, and if they understand or not. I have made a lot of films about discussions like that, and I know that sometimes the fact of listening is influencing what people are going to say. The energy of listening is very strong. But I did it quite instinctively in The Competition.
I am very naive, and as the cinematographer, I always dream that one shot will be enough to tell what's going on. So it's not at all like Wiseman, who is doing the sound, and he is asking the cameraman to get the shots so that he can edit. I am very much more naive, stupid, that I think that one shot will tell the whole story. And then, of course, I have to cut it in the end. But at least it's a very different way of shooting.
SP: Those scenes are some of the more tense things I've watched. It does capture, I think, more accurately than a lot of things I've seen, the feeling of scanning someone's face to see whether you're performing well or not. Looking at those judges and seeing if they're smiling, or what kind of reaction is happening. Were you reacting to the feeling of a tension in the room, or are you taking yourself emotionally out of it, and then reacting to that as you're editing?
CS: Oh, no, I'm very instinctive, and I tried to film the people as I feel them, when I see them. When I feel them, and film them, I try to be completely with the situation, and the people I am filming. And I try to be in the middle. Not on one side, and not on the other side. Just trying to tell the situation.
SP: Raoul Peck wasn't the president of La Fémis when you made this, was he?
CS: It’s a very good thing he's the president. It didn't exist when I filmed, but now there is a sort of other entrance exam for only four people who come from an immigrant background, or they haven’t done what all these people have had to do, like two years in university. But they compete based on a piece of film they've made. And there are four each year, since 2015 or '16.
It's a sort of answer to what you can see in the film—that it's very white, and very bourgeois. Maybe it's not that bourgeois, but it looks like it. And it's very masculine, I would say. And it's a very good thing that Raoul Peck is the president, because the fact is that the people from immigrations, first, second, third generation, think that the school is not for them. So when the president comes from Haiti, and he's black, and he's a famous filmmaker, and when some famous filmmakers from Africa direct some workshops, maybe it will get to the people who think that it's not for them.
But the reality is that the young people from immigration who are very important to the history of France, they think this school is not for them, and they can't tell the story of France from their point of view, in that school. This is the reality.
Audience Member: I'm curious what the reaction to this film was, when this came out?
CS: Oh, they thought nobody was going to be interested. Some people thought, "How come you made that film? Nobody will be interested." And then the film did quite well in France, and there were a lot of arguments in the newspapers. [Because] it's like a closed castle. They don't know what's going on outside. At the beginning, the director [of La Fémis] was my great, great supporter. Without him, I couldn't have done the film. He died before the film was released. He saw the film, he liked it a lot, he was a great support from the beginning to the end. And then the rest of the people who were teaching in the school, and even the judges, they were all like that.
I mean, if you earn some money from the state, we have to say how it works. It's our duty. And this was my point of view. I thought that we had to say to everyone, "This is how it works, a selection. And it's not only the selection of this school, it's the selection of all elite schools in France," which a lot of parents and students are dreaming of. And when I went to École Normale Supérieure, which is the most elite school that you can imagine, they say, "It's great. You wouldn't have been able to do it in our school, of course," you know? And they're all paid by the state. I thought that it was not right, because there are lots of students whose lives are ruined by the fact that they can't get in. And so it's important just to know what it is. And it was a relief for a lot of students, and not only filmmaking students, but a lot of students that said, "Oh yes, I don't want to be loved by this person. That's okay. I can live another life." And that's very important for me.
SP: I remember very well the first time I understood what the mechanisms were behind grants and fellowships and admissions, and having even the slightest insight into that, it's incredibly relaxing as a human being, to realize, "Oh, it's not..." It can really kill you, if you have no idea how it's working, or what the criteria are, or how it's perpetuating things. So even opening the door a crack does a tremendous amount of good. And this film, I think, swings it wide open.
CS: I felt that I had to do it from a citizen’s point of view. And the director [of La Fémis], he felt the same way. And each year, he tried to change the competition so it was more fair. You have in France some people like that who are great believers in the state’s virtue, and he was one of these. But it's true that, we are all from cinema, and we don't want anybody to look at us, and to see how we decide things. In France, we cut off the head of the king, you know, because he was noble. So this is like noble people, the people of cinema. And I felt that I had to show to the rest of the people in France that it's okay, this is how it works. And then when you know how it works, you're not killed because you're not accepted.
Audience Member: Do you believe that this is the best way to handle the admissions process?
CS: Oh, no, I'm against this competition. It's a question of numbers. You begin with one thousand, two hundred and fifty, you end with fifty. It's just unfair. It doesn't rely on human intelligence. It shouldn't be like that. And we tried, as a part of this school, to change it, a lot. Like, we begin with five hundred, for one year, or six hundred, and then we go down to two hundred, and then we go down to one hundred, and then we go down to fifty. And everyone was against it. Emmanuel Finkiel, who is a great filmmaker, and me, we were fighting for that. This is [based on] a fantasy that came from Napoleon. The idea was, before they had the money to get a good education, Napoleon would give the people the same possibility as the nobles. As long as you're good enough, you'll have the possibility to have what the nobles would have had, and it's a fantasy. It doesn't really work like this.
In the end, you can see in the film that if you are not brought up in a family where you know how to talk about yourself, all those questions that you are going to be asked— you will not make it. Even though you have a lot to do in cinema. Like the girl from the Ivory Coast, she has a very beautiful idea of cinema. But she is caught in a discussion where, in the end, she cannot remember even the films that she has seen. But she wants to make films, and I hope she will make films. So I don't think that it is the best way to fill a school. I thought it was important, more from a sociological, anthropological point of view, to tell all of us that we behave as though we think that this is the best way. And we have to think about that, that because we accept this kind of selection, which is the same as how you get a flat, how you get a job, our society works this way. And it's not that we are guilty and it's terrible. We have to think about it, and do more.
SP: When we talk about merit, we think that that's an even playing field, rather than something that's perpetuating the structural problems that already exist, and that's what I love about this film, that you can apply this film to any segment of society. That it’s about a French film school, and that it's state-funded—it’s specific, but it's also applicable to most institutions here as well.
CS: I was happy to do it in that school, because I thought that what people would say, we would all understand. The viewers would understand everybody's words. But if it was economics, political science, science, it would be a sort of [specialized] language that you wouldn't understand. So it's a nice thing about cinema, that people are always thinking about stories, and the story you're going to tell. And this is the good side of it, I think.