The Graduation


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Graduation
"The film shimmers and provokes where it is least expected." | Photo: Unifrance

Raoul Peck, the director of the Oscar-nominated James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro has been president of the prestigious French state film school, La Fémis, since 2010. Le Concours, inexplicably titled in English The Graduation, focuses neither on Peck, nor on tales of esteemed alumni such as François Ozon or Kirsten Johnson, but on the admission process which takes centre stage.

Many of the protagonists remain nameless. Procedure has the starring role and the result reveals a lot. A former teacher at the school herself, the director of the documentary, Claire Simon, has remarkable access. Her behind-the-scenes look is fascinating on many levels and not only for people interested in cinema. The film shimmers and provokes where it is least expected.

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Unlike so many filmmakers chronicling a competition - for an award, a job, or in this case, admission to La Fémis - The Graduation does not follow a handful of applicants to reveal in the end if they got in or not. Instead, we are plopped, without much background information, into the machinations of the selection.

A large auditorium is filled to the last seat for the first round. The prospective directors, screenwriters, producers, editors, cinematographers, sound engineers, production designers and distributors start out with a written three-hour exam. They are shown film clips and have to analyse them. Simon shows the faces watching. What do they see? Do they recognise the film? Will the jury care if they do or don't? Some write, some stare.

When the time is up, the lights are turned off, because some are still writing - squeezing out the last, victorious, life-changing drops of genius. A number of professionals from the various branches of the movie industry in France, not the state film school itself, pick and discuss and dispute who will get in and who won't.

The deliberation process and commentary about candidates we see, and sometimes don't see, is a gem for the art of decision-making. The perils of group rulings, the bias in personal preferences come crashing down. Anybody who has ever taken an exam or conducted an interview can relate.

Because the various panels have such vastly different opinions about the essays, the process suddenly turns capricious. How could it not? The portfolio and the film analysis of the same person don't match. One is "great", the other "banal". Interviews, oral and practical, follow.

Screenwriting candidates get a one-sentence theme and have to come up with a story. An applicant's tale of a tourist, religious fanatics, purification and murder is questioned by the panel. "Is it realistic?" He says "It's based on my cousin."

The debating by the jurors runs the gamut from amusing to gripping to shockingly bland and back again. They try to figure out who is who in a family story. They see the directing candidates maneuver their actors around the same ugly living room set. A girl who gave some interesting answers folds when being asked what films left an impression on her. She hesitates. She can't remember the last film she saw. She can't come up with a single film. "Not even Titanic", one member of the panel gasps.

A breathtaking moment shows the film professionals discussing if a directing candidate is possibly "insane." Talented and crazy can go hand-in-hand, of course. A colleague counters the fear that they could unleash a big problem onto the school by bringing up Cronenberg or Dreyer and the doubt that those two actually were "good communicators" when they started out.

Reviewed on: 08 Sep 2017
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A documentary about selection procedures at cinema school La Fémis in Paris.
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Director: Claire Simon

Year: 2016

Runtime: 121 minutes

Country: France

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