A scene from Claire Simon's "The Competition"

Interview: Claire Simon on an Ongoing Education with “The Competition”

It is always the fear for journalists when interviewing filmmakers that they are simply adding to the illusion of the film they’ve made in talking about how they made it. This is not a concern with Claire Simon.

“I just feel it’s very interesting to film the reality that I could know a little bit,” Simon says, explaining her reasoning to set up a camera at the French filmmaking institution La Fémis for “The Competition (Les Concours),” observing the selection process for aspiring to gain acceptance into the school. “Everyone thinks is very interesting when it’s in fiction, but they feel terrible when they see it in documentaries — suddenly people think, “Oh my God, this is terrible…” People of cinema are like, ‘Oh no! Don’t show us.’ Just make [the story] the promotion of me and my film, but don’t show us as real people.”

While there are plenty of films that have pulled back the curtain on the filmmaking process, far fewer have been able to articulate who gets the training and resources to make them as well as “The Competition,” tackling a subject that has gained traction recently with the conversations around workplace inequity that have sprung up as a result of the #metoo movement. Free of any sensationalism, Simon sensitively observes how decisions are made behind closed doors, transforming the evaluation of art into a wide-ranging exploration of what the gatekeepers at La Fémis are looking for as far as prospective film students, illustrating not only how personal creative preferences that have shaped their own work as filmmakers extend to choosing who gets in, but also how race and class can subtly factor in, an approach that can turn each backroom where decisions are made into a tinderbox.

Shot in 2015, the film’s arrival in America at this particular cultural moment can make it feel even more of a revelation than if simply appreciated on its own considerable merits, as well as the fact that somehow it is the first film in Simon’s extraordinary 30-year career to receive a proper U.S. theatrical run, courtesy of the good folks at the Metrograph who are acknowledging how special “The Competition” is by making it the inaugural release of the celebrated New York arthouse as a distributor. The release will hopefully stoke interest in the rest of Simon’s work, which has only started to recently gain notoriety on these shores through the work of intrepid programmers at festivals such as True/False where the filmmaker was honored in 2017 and at repertory houses like, well, the Metrograph. On the eve of traveling across the Atlantic for the film’s opening weekend, Simon reflected on what inspiration she sought to give young filmmakers with “The Competition,” breaking past cycles of all kinds and why she’s never offloaded the duties of cinematography on her films to anyone else.

A scene from Claire Simon's "The Competition"How did “The Competition” begin for you? I know you taught at one point at La Fémis.

I’m very interested in the backstage of anything, especially things that I know and I was the head of the direction department with the other filmmakers. We would follow the work of the directing students, but it’s a very complicated – but very interesting – school. After I made a fictional film called “Gare du Nord,” I thought I’ve done enough of that for 10 years – each of [the instructors] would go and do our films and then we would come back, and I was looking at us and I was thinking, “This is real life. This is interesting.” Not because it’s backstage or because the people of cinema think that they are from a different category that shouldn’t be filmed. On the contrary, I was amazed by the modernity of it. So I told the director of La Fémis I’m going to quit anyway, but I’d like to make a film in the school. He was thrilled because he liked my films and he knew that I was not going to [be unfair].

Then when I began, there were three or four students [standing] in the front of the gate [at La Fémis] and suddenly when the door was opened by the man who was guarding the place, so many young people appeared suddenly. I felt we were in a medieval castle and that [these students] were trying to get inside and I thought this is the story I want to tell – the relationship between the outside and the inside of a very famous, very selective school. Fortunately, because it’s cinema, the audience can understand what the people are talking about because if you do that in a school of science, of political science, or economics, nobody understands a word of the discussions. There are all these very great schools in France [with a similar story about] getting in for the entrance exam [such as] business school, or Polytechnique or if you go to ENA [the École nationale d’administration], which is the political school, but everyone in a cinema can understand what [these students] talk about – what is a story, does the boy love the girl? Then I went to see the director and I said, “Look, I think just the entrance exam is a whole wonderful story.” And I had done it once as a juror.

Was there anything from your own experience that keyed you into what you wanted to capture about the school?

I didn’t like very much the idea of the competition to get into the school because when I met the students sometimes I thought, “How come he got inside [over another student]?” I had some students who were trying to get into the school and some were very brilliant and they didn’t get in, but I knew being taken being was not random because everyone was trying to do their best, especially the director and every year, there were new things to make the deal fair to the young candidates. So I thought it was really a great moment to film, not by taking a student or taking a jury, but by taking the machine, the process as a subject.

And what I saw was the beautiful, naive approach of the candidates and the real concern of the jury who are trying to find out [who to select]. The higher you get in the process, the more there are discussions [about the candidates] and there’s always at least one person who doesn’t agree. And that is very interesting because it means that there is always a hard discussion [of a candidate’s merits]. And I felt more as you go into the process, the more you realize that [making] cinema is a very interesting anthropological [situation] that is very precarious because nobody has a full-time job, nobody is ever sure of what to do the next three to six months, so [it was interesting] to see the will of all the professionals trying to continue their work by choosing [students]…they felt guilty, but they wanted people that looked like them.

A scene from Claire Simon's "The Competition"Your follow-up film “Young Solitude” (currently streaming on Amazon Prime) didn’t have a direct connection with La Fémis, but it also concerned film students and gave them the platform to talk about their lives – was that something you wanted to do after focusing so much on the administration and infrastructure at La Fémis?

No, there is [connection] because I’m the same person and I like young people and to get into their minds. It excites me because I think they’re the future and I’m interested in the future. Not everyone is. [laughs] But I was offered to do that film with this class in “Young Solitude” because the young students of the high school were studying cinema once a week. They were far from the will of the young candidates that I filmed in La Fémis who were older and wanted to be on the higher level of studies. So it’s very different. The struggle that they were having was much more general like “How do I get rid of my family problem? How do I grow up and become an adult?” It was mainly lower class students [from families where] the fact that all the couples that were separated, the children didn’t know what to think about love then because they had this idea that love would not last and it’s a big question for them.

Something I’ve wanted to ask for a while, but I’ve heard you say you wanted to keep the job of cinematographer as a way to keep the power – did that seem like much of a decision at the start of your career?

I like filming. I like the camera. I haven’t been trained to do that. I’m trained because I do it and being a woman, at the beginning and for a while, I realized that the fact that I had the finger on the “record” button gave me the power on any film, [whether] it was fiction or documentary. It was always my decision and I don’t have to explain to anyone why I decide to shoot now and not before and not after. It’s much better for me. They can’t do it without me.

A scene from Claire Simon's "The Competition"In general, making observational documentaries over the years, has anything changed with people being more image conscious these days?

Yes, it’s true, but I change my method every film. When I did “The Competition,” I was also doing a film in the woods of Seine, one of the two [forests] of Paris, at the same time [that was] only dialogues that I have with people and “Young Solitude,” it’s more that I told them, “Go on, talk. I’m not there.” And they were okay to have their conversations in front of the camera because we discussed it before, which is very different from “The Competition” because we understand that we have the right to see it because it’s a national process, it’s a public process. Whole families are wondering if their children should go and try this competition, and I felt that having worked in that school for 10 years, I really needed as a personal and a political commitment to do that film to help the young candidates who were going to come over not only in La Fémis, but in all great schools to see how a selection was done because [when we showed the film to] an audience of young people, they felt relieved.

And there was a big screening in La Fémis while the director, who helped me a lot, was still alive. Unfortunately, he had a terrible disease and passed away [shortly after] and we did another big screening with the new director of La Fémis, Nathalie Coste-Cerdan, and it’s very funny because some of the professionals who are teaching at La Fémis, they would go out and say, “I don’t see the point. What is the interest of that film?” And some people would say, “Oh, I would love to take this exam,” and some who were sons of immigrants for example, they would say, “Oh, I’m glad I never tried because it’s not for us. It’s just for the white establishment.” So it was very controversial. But you have so many young people who are destroyed completely because they failed the entrance exam and [now] they understood that if they didn’t like the films of Laetitia Masson or Olivier Ducastel, it was not a crime that they wouldn’t get in. Of course, they would [not be accepted] this year and try again, but [seeing the selection process] they felt that they were in front of human beings with tastes and decisions and think that if they didn’t share them, it was okay. I believe that cinema can be [the result of] really democratic philosophical thinking and it worked like this for a lot of young people I’ve met.

A scene from Claire Simon's "The Competition"Having all these retrospectives of late and talking about your career or seeing your films in context, did you have any new perspective on your work?

I don’t watch the films really during a retrospective. [laughs] But I usually have a master class — I’m a good friend of Ross McElwee and we call it “Martyr Class.” [laughs] I feel that I’m [always] asking myself questions about the next work [rather than the past]. Maybe I made a sort of portrait of myself during the other films but as I told you before, there are great filmmakers using always the same pattern to make a film — let’s say Frederick Wiseman – he uses the same [style], and it’s getting better and better, but he’s digging the same film — but I don’t see [working that way]. In France, we have a terrible Ayatollah of documentary. If you talk to the people, you film then you’re not an observer. If you observe the people, then you don’t talk to them. If you make a film with you, you have to be outside the frame — all these kinds of rules that are not [explicit] rules, but I think documentary cinema and cinema is full of different ways. Ask lots of great fiction filmmakers and they didn’t [make a film] every time the same way.

It took me very long to film in Paris because Paris was really the property of Nouvelle Vague and with documentary, I tried with Gare du Nord, which is a place where not many people were filming and if there is one thing that appears to me at the beginning very strongly, it is places. I’m very much interested in the story that gets out from a place. I am very touched by that because I feel it’s a way to avoid the sort of cliche in scripts and in stories because places are really made of stories, made of the will of people, one on top of the other. Also, I’m probably very lazy — I’m not the kind of filmmaker who is thinking I should do a film about the army tomorrow and try and go and do that job — so I make films going out of my house because I meet people, I go some places and then a film appears to me. The moment when a place appears to me as a possible film, it’s because I feel it’s a metaphor, that it’s working, that it’s a cinematographic machine, a system and it can be for me a way to talk about the whole world and what’s going on.

“The Competition” opens on February 22nd at the Metrograph. It will expand throughout the country in the weeks ahead, including Los Angeles at the Laemmle Glendale on March 1st.