The formula of the competition documentary is a sturdy and familiar one. Whether the subject is a spelling bee, a dance tournament or a science fair, the format is pretty much identical: We observe a handful of striving young competitors through the process, getting to know, and hopefully love, each one personally. If that means dozens of equally interesting biographies are left on the cutting-room floor, then so be it — consider them sacrificed to the altar of practicality. We can’t follow everybody.
This may be a truism, but it’s one Claire Simon dismisses in her more egalitarian, freeform spin on the genre, The Competition, opening today at Lake Worth Playhouse. In the direct cinema style of Frederick Wiseman, Simon shadowed the elite French film school La Fémis during the entirety of its lengthy annual admissions process, in which thousands of applicants will be winnowed down to fill 40 spaces. La Fémis is the most awarded film school in the world, and its alumni include Alain Resnais, Claire Denis, Theo Angelopoulos, Andre Techine and Costa-Gavras.
But Simon doesn’t tell us any of this. Background information and exposition, both of the university itself and the aspiring cineastes hoping to be accepted, are jettisoned. The Competition exists in the here and now, sponge-like and free of judgment, and Simon’s unprecedented access is abundantly revealing.
Simon bookends her film with shots of the historic school building’s iron gate, first opening to a throng of students, then closing behind the last examiners to leave. In between, we eavesdrop on students’ graduated challenges — screening and analyzing a feature, writing and pitching scripts, filming a short, and submitting themselves to multiple faculty interviews and critiques. Our experience with certain applicants is limited to the few minutes of screen time Simon grants them, and we soon realize that The Competition is not really about them. It’s about the kingmakers on the other side of this power dynamic, the examiners tasked with separating the wheat from the chaff.
These include fellow directors — Simon herself was once director of filmmaking at La Fémis — film journalists, programmers, distributors and professionals from all facets of the industry, from scriptwriting to production design. Humor arises in their reactions to students’ pitches, as they, along with us, fail to follow the byzantine structure of an aspirant’s crime thriller, or exchange weary glances after a particularly self-absorbed interview.
Like the town commission meetings in Wiseman’s recent Monrovia, Indiana, the faculty’s impassioned, roiling debates about polarizing applicants are surprisingly riveting. When one student exhibits flashes of both genius and instability, some of the examiners call to reject him, because, they say, all directors must be able to communicate clearly with their crews. Another professional counters that, “we might be rejecting a Cronenberg.” In support of this position, another examiner adds, “Dreyer wouldn’t have been full with the joys of life in an interview.”
Some examiners learn to distrust their initial impressions. “Were we seduced by her accent?” wonders one examiner, who along with her colleague was impressed by the thoughtful responses of a documentarian ingénue from the southern provinces. Later, they candidly muse about the importance of diversity in the final 40, expressing their desires to see a crop equally distributed between men and women, with black and “Arab” representation commensurate with the society at large, and with enough low-income students with inspirational narratives. Speaking quietly about the weighing of identity politics in their decision-making, it’s as if they forgot a camera was on them, and that speaks to Simon’s superpower of invisibility throughout the process.
Other times, when students shoot themselves in the foot so pointedly, the process is made easy. An African immigrant and daughter of a political refugee initially earns respect for arguing that films are more important than politics because “you can change the world and people’s minds with films.” But soon after, she finds herself unable to answer a question that is by no means a gotcha: “What are some films that left an impression on you?” Simon lingers on the deafening silence that follows, as the applicant, prompted twice more, is unable to name a single movie she liked. We know her application has been torpedoed.
(As an aside, I know this applicant: As a magazine editor, I can’t tell you how many bushy-tailed interns have walked through the office doors unable, like Sarah Palin, to answer the question, “What magazines do you read?” because they don’t read anything. This absence of autodidacticism, of the self-driven pursuit of knowledge, is endemic to at least two generations.)
Yet the faculty’s largely subjective motivations — whether to value renegades or strict rule-followers, or to lean toward remote or minority populations — place enormous pressure on whims, intuitions and prejudices. They are what make judging the arts and humanities so unique, so thorny, so challenging to square and so full of contradictions.
By the time the gates of La Fémis have shuttered, we’ve glimpsed students who speak about film with the tones of mystic philosophers, solipsistic blowhards and well-meaning naïfs. They might not grow into the next Truffaut, or Spielberg, or Cronenberg. But anybody who survived this gantlet is worth watching. The system may be imperfect, but it’s produced some of the finest directors in French cinema. Our own schools might be wise to follow its rocky road.
THE COMPETITION (LE CONCOURS). Director: Claire Simon; Distributor: Metrograph; Not rated; in French with English subtitles; Opens today at Lake Worth Playhouse