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Interview with Claire Simon

As part of the Tournées Film Festival, a program that aims to bring French cinema to American college and university campuses, CUNY College of Staten Island will offer a screening of Claire Simon's film The Competition on February 20. Simon's is one of 19 films from this year to be featured in the festival's film selection. The Competition is the first of six Tournées Film Festival screenings at CSI. On this occasion, Lauren M. Silverman, student at Macaulay Honors College, and David A. Gerstner, professor in the Media Culture Department, interviewed the French director about the process of creating her film, which focuses on the highly competitive admission exam to La Fémis, France's leading film school. 

Find below a transcript of the interview or listen to the full audio interview here

The Competition Shines a Spotlight on Rigorous Admissions Processes in Film Schools

As college students, we are all too familiar with the anxieties of applications and interviews. The Competition, a French documentary from director Claire Simon, provides an insightful look into this process at La Fémis, France’s top film school. It reveals the challenging trials through which applicants must progress while revealing other factors that influence the juries’ decisions, such as sociocultural backgrounds.

Simon had several motivations for creating her documentary, from her ten years of experience teaching at La Fémis to her interest in observing life in general.

For me, making The Competition was sort of an anthropological portrait of our [French] society where, in the case of La Fémis, the selection committees–who are professionals of the cinema industry–are in a way choosing candidates who will be their heirs to French filmmaking,says Simon.

In The Competition, Simon addresses a number of questions. What is the admissions process like and what are the rules? And how do people from an older generation go about judging much younger candidates?

I was very committed to addressing these questions in my film,” says Simon, who did not have much difficulty getting permission to shoot the documentary. Everyone signed authorizations and could withdraw at any time. The final shots in the film were approved by all subjects involved.

The main challenge Simon faced when filming The Competition was capturing the admissions process in the most authentic way possible. 

I didn’t want my camera to interfere with the rigorous steps of the exam.”

So what makes top schools like La Fémis so prestigious? According to Simon, the excellent networking opportunities at La Fémis set it apart from other French film schools. Film professionals are also heavily involved at the school, teaching workshops and providing the students with unique experiences that give them an edge in the industry. 

But potential students must face an intimidating application process before being admitted. Their skills are constantly put to the test, from the initial written film analysis to the increasingly selective interview and pitch stages.

The Competition reveals some of the flaws of this process.

Not every candidate is good at presenting themselves,” says Simon. “The selection process … draws upon mainly a culture of dominant classes. Because of this, a lot of young people interested in making independent films think that this school is not for them, especially if they are the children of immigrants.

Several scenes in The Competition reveal jurors’ motivations for choosing and rejecting candidates, which include personality and cultural backgrounds. 

Students at La Fémis might have an advantage in the film industry, but nothing is guaranteed. 

A part of the cinema you see from France comes from La Fémis students, says Simon.Students who study scriptwriting tend to … successfully find work in the industry. It takes much longer for a director to make a first film.

“The Competition” is unique because it reveals a process that is otherwise confidential. The comments from the jurors are brutal, and even the eventual new admits are scrutinized in their interviews and presentations. 

The film has both deterred and inspired potential film school students. While some might view the process as a challenge to overcome, others might find it cruel and decide to apply elsewhere. But Simon encourages filmmakers to remember that the application process is not a holistic representation of La Fémis.

“I don’t think you can really have an idea of [La Fémis] by the competition to enter the school,says Simon. “You can see how French professionals talk about candidates. Remember, the jury changes every year.

In fact, some of La Fémis’s rejected candidates used the film to understand why they weren’t accepted. 

The Competition, they told me, ‘made me realize that life was not ruined.’ For me, as a filmmaker, this was a great compliment.”

Adapted from The Banner Newspaper – 'The Competition’ Shines Spotlight on Rigorous Admissions Processes in Film Schools