Conversation with Claire Simon: “Who says teenagers don’t think?”
Dorothee Wenner: PREMIÈRES SOLITUDES takes place in a high school in the suburbs of Paris. What kind of school is it? Did you choose it because it is very ‘typical’, or is there something special about it?
Claire Simon: I neither looked for nor chose this school. I was invited by a teacher to make a film with her pupils. She teaches literature and cinema. The cinema course is a special option, so it has only ten pupils. I was to be the director and screenwriter of a short fiction film and they would act and do some technical jobs. This was a workshop organised and financed by the town hall and the local cinema of the city. Everything turned out very differently and I decided to spend much more time there and expanded my commitment by a great deal. I fell in love with this high school – with both the pupils and the building. It’s on the top of a hill, which is a great location for a film. You can see the whole city, like in a painting by Fernand Leger.
Please tell us something about your approach to working with the teenagers.
At first, I was supposed to write a short film, in which the pupils in the class were supposed to act. I told them I had to know more about them so I could write the screenplay. I interviewed them about the topic of solitude, which is an experience any human can share, no matter his or her age, and it definitely rang a bell for them. They spoke to me about their personal lives in a way in which they would never talk with their friends. I filmed the interviews and edited them. I was very moved by their answers, by their stories and their ways of thinking. But afterwards, the pupils said they had given those interviews for research purposes only, and did not want them shown to any audience. So together we decided that the film would be made up of dialogue based on the interviews and that they would tell each other those things they usually don’t speak about. That way, they could choose what they were saying with full consciousness, and see what it meant for their friend. That was a revelation to the group, since the earlier interviews hadn’t taken place in the presence of the other pupils. I wanted to film the dialogue between the teenagers, and show what it is like when people of the same age, in the same situation, talk to one another. A lot of dialogue in documentaries is with people who come from very different areas. In the realm of media too, or with police, the law, medical personnel, or in business, conversations often take place in which one person is asking another about their life, but the conversational partners have very different experiences and backgrounds. Telling something about your life to an examiner, during a competition, or during a job interview is very different from telling it to a friend.
The protagonists of PREMIÈRES SOLITUDES all seem extremely media-savvy and camera-aware. Can you compare their input to protagonists you worked with on other films, some ten or twenty years ago?
We filmed dialogues, and like any actor, the pupils are camera-aware. But the dialogue and the exchanges are completely true. PREMIÈRES SOLITUDES is not a documentary in the Direct Cinema tradition; it’s a different way to make films.
As a filmmaker, you are known to use elements of feature filmmaking in your documentaries. Can you describe how you navigate the grey zone between the genres? Are there any ‘no-go-areas’?
The only no-go areas for me are vanity and narcissism – unless those phenomena are the subject of the film. Each film has its own aesthetic form. I love experimenting on a new canvas, discovering new ways for myself, and doing the opposite of what I did in the film before. We shot very little footage for PREMIÈRES SOLITUDES – there was a very different shooting ratio from the documentary series I’m working on now.
Until today, in this era of fake news and similar media phenomena, it still happens that cinema audiences are annoyed when directors mix fiction and reality in documentaries – sometimes almost with a feeling of resentment or betrayal. Have you ever encountered this perception, and are there cinematographic strategies with which this can be avoided?
I feel the audience reaction to truth in documentaries is the opposite of what you are saying. People seem to like fakeness, or the impression of fiction in a documentary. That’s shown, for example, by Roberto Minervini’s work, which was shown at Cannes. I think anyone can see in PREMIÈRES SOLITUDES, like in the other films I make, that everything is real, not fake – and I hope, I think, even more: I think it is true. No one can write dialogue like this or reproduce it in front of the camera. My work on PREMIÈRES SOLITUDES was more about directing and helping the pupils to listen to each other, discover each other’s lives, and take an interest in each other’s stories.
Because of the seriousness and emotional depth of the conversations, it almost felt like your film is a kind of counter-image to how today’s generation of teenagers is portrayed in other media: as social media addicts who have lost any conversational skills. Was this a ‘by-product’, or something you – and the teenagers – very much intended to achieve in your collaboration?
The teenagers I worked with are very bright. Maybe you recognise someone else’s intelligence when you reveal something of yourself. Perhaps solitude also inspires thought? For me as a filmmaker, I think it’s very important to be inside the logic of the protagonists. I think they understood that I was listening to them seriously, and that we had to deal with real and important subjects to make a good film. And they showed us how they think and shared their ideas. Who says they don’t think?
(Interview: Dorothee Wenner, January 2018)