From his 1967 debut Titicut Follies, which portrays a mental hospital for the criminally insane, the American documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has devoted a large part of his career to making movies about various institutions. With his studies of – among other things – hospitals, universities and military organizations, the well-known direct cinema-director created a school for observational “institution films.”
On these shores, Margret Olin is among the filmmakers who’ve followed in his footsteps. In Dei mjuke hendene and Ungdommens råskap she portrayed a retirement home and a secondary school respectively, while her latest and most consistently observational film, Barndom, shows how play unfolds in a kindergarten.
The French filmmaker Claire Simon’s latest documentary The Graduation is another such “fly on the wall”-movie about an institution. Simon has turned the lens towards a central institution in her own industry, the national French film school La Femis – and more precisely its intense, exhaustive admissions process.
The distributor should have chosen a more direct translation of the original title Le Concours (meaning “the competition”) than its misleading international title The Graduation. This is primarily because Simon’s documentary doesn’t deal with the school’s graduate level students, but with the process of selecting new students. Moreover, the film directs its focus precisely at the competition you have to go through to gain admission to this prestigious educational institution, which count luminaries like Louis Malle, Theo Angelopoulos, Costa-Gavras, Claire Denis, François Ozon, Sólveig Anspach and our own Eskil Vogt among its alumni.
The school’s entrance exams stretch over several months. Naturally these tests take different forms depending on the different fields of study, which encompass scriptwriting and directing, cutting, sound design, movie distribution and cinema management. The candidates to the different programmes are assessed by professionals from the industry, in accordance with the school’s distinct philosophy of not employing regular teaching staff, but hiring filmmakers and other professionals to share their experiences instead.
This two-hour long movie consists of a series of longer sequences from different parts of the selection process, chronologically presented from the first assembly to the final decision – followed by the photographing of the chosen few. A more obvious choice would perhaps have been to follow the same candidates throughout the entire process, but Simon’s focus is on the work with, and the thinking surrounding, the selection process itself. As a result, the film deals more with the admission committees than with the prospective students, in a documentary that gives the viewer the chance to evaluate the evaluation itself – or at least to reflect on this kind of evaluations.
The selection committee must necessarily base its decisions on subjective judgement, and in the last resort these decisions may well rest on the different committee members’ ability to argue their favourite candidate’s case. Occasionally the whole process comes across as a talent contest à la American Idol or The X Factor, where the candidates try their best to impress a jury that will then assess their skills and future potential (in this case with the difference that the candidate has already left the room). Then again, such admission processes are essentially talent contests, and as such only a foretaste of the competition that awaits the students if or when they graduate.
The applicant’s talent, however, doesn’t necessarily have to be completely developed at the outset, as he or she will be expected to mature further during their period of study. To assess how the candidate will handle both the process itself and life in the industry, the committee must also to a large extent evaluate the individual applicant’s personality.
During the evaluation of a relatively eccentric candidate, one of the committee members expresses her fears of “rejecting a Cronenberg”, the Canadian filmmaker serving as an example of “crazy artistic genius”. Here the movie touches on a fundamental issue involved in such selections: if you’re to find tomorrow’s pioneers of film, you have to tolerate a certain amount of madness, not to mention personalities who’re unlikely to play the part of obedient model students. At the same time, they must take into consideration the fact that filmmaking – more than any other art form, probably – requires good communication and cooperation skills. Of no group is this truer than of directors.
With her systematically observational approach, Simon (who’s also the movie’s main photographer) has gotten close to the interviews and evaluations. For the people involved, the film captures them in a demanding, highly vulnerable situation. At the same time, this is a process that is obviously of some interest to the wider public.
I watched the film at the Documentary Film Festival in Thessaloniki, where Simon was present to answer questions from the audience after the viewing. Here she explained that all those appearing in the film had given their consent in advance, and that rejected applicants were at liberty to withdraw from the documentary. Members of the selection committee were also given the chance to watch the parts in which they were involved in the editing room, and could freely ask to be edited out of the documentary – something that none of them did, according to the director.
Right to insight
Simon taught at La Femis for several years herself, something which we may assume was an advantage in gaining the trust required to carry out this project. In an interview with the American magazine Film Comment (published on March 15), she nevertheless argued that a tax-funded educational institution has no right to deny the public an insight into how it functions, something that the head of the school apparently agreed with.
In any case, the filmmaker’s relationship with the institution doesn’t take the movie in a polemical direction, as Simon’s almost anthropological approach leaves it to the viewers to draw their own conclusions about the admissions process. Even though the selection committee at La Femis appears to perform its task thoroughly and conscientiously, many factors influence their decisions – some of them undoubtedly more arbitrary and less fair than others. In this respect, the film offers a sobering reminder that making a movie or getting accepted into a prestigious film school is not a human right.
Above all The Graduation provides a fascinating insight into a process that usually takes place behind firmly closed doors, and as such it raises some interesting questions about the competition going on behind the screens.