The Competition (2016) follows the application process of France’s premier film institute La Fémis. Claire Simon’s observational style delivers moments of insight and honesty that are enough to keep any viewer thoroughly engaged. Even so, there are times when this documentary film feels, perhaps unintentionally, directionless and obscured. (AG: 3.5/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Anika Guttormson
The Competition (2016) is a french documentary from director and cinematographer Claire Simon. The film sends us through the application process to La Fémis, France’s premier film institute and a school that Simon herself used to teach at. We are carried through scenes of students writing the original application essay, to their many interviews from industry professionals, to finally seeing which 40 people were chosen to attend that year. The film doesn’t shy away from exposing the many oddities of the application process, allowing us an intimate backstage look into the processes that define so many young filmmakers’ lives.
Through suspense, honesty, and humor, this film explores the role that personal preferences and personality play in the acceptance process. All of the examiners are professionals who have become established in the film industry in France. Early on, we are taken aback by the discussion between two of these people over what score to give to the interview of a boy who was obviously genius and yet unintelligible. The two women disregard the boy’s work entirely and instead argue passionately over whether his personality is suitable for the school based on their subjective opinions alone.
In the documentary Simon also shows scenes where the interviewers are sharing racist, misogynistic, or ableist opinions about the applicants. At one point an interviewer even referred to a student as “autistic” in reference to why she wouldn’t admit him to the institution. Earlier on, two interviewers joke about how there is little minority representation within the school itself. These instances are much more obvious than many of the others in the documentary. Nevertheless, Simon is obviously intention in her choice of clips to share. She could have easily omitted the evaluators many microaggressions but she purposely chooses to leave these moments in the film.
Where this film falls short is in it’s shying away from decrying these problems. It continually toes the line between being a pure observation documentary and making a statement of its own. Someone watching the documentary who was not used to the process of evaluating films could easily walk away not understanding the critique that Simon was making. To be able to expose problems like racism and misogyny and to not take a principled and obvious stance against them exposes Simon’s place of privilege and relative distance.
Additionally, for the sake of clarity it would have been helpful to see the documentary zero in on a batch of applicants or on a single group of examiners instead of jumping so quickly from separate interview to separate interview. There are interviewers and interviewees who appear briefly and are never heard from again, or who are seen twice but over an hour apart. All of this muddies the water and makes it harder to keep track of the many people present in the documentary. The labyrinthian format of this film certainly gives the viewer time to reflect on what they’re ingesting, but these reflections are usually tied to trying to untangle the story instead of uncovering any sort of deeper meaning.
Claire Simon was able to mold an eye-opening and even suspenseful documentary that serves as an overall critique of institutional application processes. The Competition offers a look into the obstacles that the filmmakers of the present have to conquer. Even in the twenty-first century there are problems, such as xenophobia, ableism, etc., that force some of our best creatives from the field and leave room for those that are fortunate enough to be born already fitting within the mold of what a creative is allowed to be. For all its problems, The Competition forces it’s audiences to engage with this reality and ask themselves why such brokenness is allowed to continue. Why do we look to these so-called titans of industry to decide who should be allowed to create when they’re so obviously confused about it themselves?
© Anika Guttormson (03/05/18) FF2 Media
Photo Credits: IMDB
Q: Does The Competition pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
There are many conversations between women interviewers as well as between women interviewers and their candidates.
Commentary by Review Coach Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
As Anika observes, the interviewers are openly prejudiced in some cases, and subjectively biased in all. Since Anika and I both have the experience of trying to find community at film school, we talked for a while after the film about how we could see certain common personalities from most film schools represented among the candidates. It has always frustrated me how people whose work is the most different from the film school norm tend to be precisely the people who don’t find a place for them in film schools, whether it’s because they aren’t admitted at all or because they aren’t accepted when they get there. In a shocking reveal that will surely surprise everyone, I must inform you that this is because film school is often a microcosm of the film industry, in that the people who succeed there are often white, male, and rich.
For me, The Competition’s greatest takeaway was the arbitrariness of it all; it begs the question, why do these people get to choose who is admitted to this institution? Why does this institution and other elite schools like it get to choose who succeeds post-college? Why do we have a society where some people are set above others at all? The Competition almost seems to beg these questions through its sheer length and lack of coherent structure; when you sit for two hours watching what begins to feel like an interminable round of interviews, the whole thing, both in the film and outside of it, just stops making sense to you. Even if you bought into the idea of hierarchy, privilege, and success before, you could end up having so much time to think during The Competition that you reach a totally new point of view by the time this movie ends.