IDFA's Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia hosted the conversation with Simon, and welcomed her by saying that she is a filmmaker whom the documentary community very much respects, appreciates, looks up to, and learns from.
"That's how I feel about our guest, Claire Simon, the filmmaker who made so much impact on generations of filmmakers that followed," Nyrabia said.
Simon returned the compliment by calling IDFA the most important documentary festival in the world, and a "nice and welcoming place for a film," referring to the fact that her latest effort, The Grocer's Son, the Mayor, the Village and the World... has its world premiere in Amsterdam.
The film is an offspring of Simon's TV series Le Village, about the village of Lussas in France’s Ardèche region, known to documentary professionals as the home of a documentary festival and streaming platform Tënk. A group of idealists, led by experienced producer Jean-Marie Barbe, sets out to build this ambitious project. The local mayor is on their side, but it’s a struggle to satisfy the financiers, the subscribers, and the other politicians.
Although Simon always worked with feature films, she decided to make this story into a series first.
"My interest was this small village where you have farmers and documentary people," she explained. "What I realized when I was filming it was that the farmers had the same problems as the cinema people: you have the same scale of choices between fertilizers and very big quantity of production for a very low price, or opting for organic wine or fruit—much like documentary people.
"The series was based on the idea that it was place where people are coming and going and their stories intersect. The village is a unity of time and space. When I was filming and editing it, I felt that what I was mainly filming was time—realizing the fact that nothing would be ever the same again.
"This is different in the film. I had to find a way to tell the story in 110 minutes, without this aspect of time. So I thought, what could replace time? It's money! I always thought that money is what is running our scripts, that is, our lives. If you follow the money problem, then you have a story. That was my main line to edit the film on: to tell how they got the money and what were their battles. At the same time, farmers also led their own battles about money."
The religious side of cinema
Nyrabia then showed a clip from the film: a scene at the festival in the village with a full house at an open-air screening. He pointed out that Simon's films always celebrate cinema, especially documentary cinema.
"I think cinema is like a temple," she said. "A place where, on a big screen, we share thoughts and visions about life and world, and it is through cinema that Jean-Marie Barbe has brought the whole world to his small village.
"Cinema is not information, it's emotion, sharing the experience. I think it is very religious. We see in Wiseman's National Gallery that art had become the real religion, that it was a way of thinking, and I think cinema has a very religious side. As long as we are in a theater we are all alone and together at the same time, we are completely inside the story that is told by the film, thinking and seeing a vision."
The next clip that was played comes from Simon's 2016 documentary film The Competition, set in the famous la Fémis film school and following its students from the very competitive admissions test to graduation exams. She taught at la Fémis, but she actually never attended a film school herself, except for a documentary course at Ateliers Varan.
"I felt I was in a very academic temple of cinema and I would try to bring students to places where I would have liked to be taken as a student," she recalled. "I tried to do things that I liked and show them things in which I believe.
"You can see that for these young people cinema is a passion, but it's also something very social and it's very important to be in this very famous school. It's this social side of it that I felt during my teaching years very strongly. The students are painfully aware of being watched by all these masters. And I am trying to show them the world from where I stand. I think it's important to not pretend that you are someone else, or talk instead of someone else. From knowing who you are and where you stand, you already see a lot of things."
Next up, Nyrabia showed a clip from Simon's 2018 documentary Young Solitude, in which she follows ten high school students, and asked her why exactly she focused on solitude.
"This is the word I decided to use when I started talking to them," she explained. "I told them, 'I'm not your age but I think we can share something, which is the experience of solitude.'
"I did some interviews with them and it was amazing how they responded. I couldn't believe it. The word 'solitude' was so efficient for them, it meant so much. They started talking about their families and what was their feeling of solitude within the family. It is also about their age—this is the age when you realize that a human being is always alone.
"But I think solitude is so poorly understood and interpreted in society," Simon continued. "As a woman, I know that. It's like we are not human beings. Because solitude is great for a man, an artist, but for a woman it just means she hasn't found a man."
Simon always does her own cinematography. This comes from the same reason.
"I do the camera because I really love the idea that I'm able to do it, but also because I'm a woman. It's the only way I'm sure to be the head, the master, the chief. I pull the trigger. I did one or two short films with another cinematographer and I realized that when I do it myself, it changes everything for me, especially the relationship with the people I film. Even in fiction: actors prefer that I film because it's a direct relationship.
"Also, I like the physical commitment of it. I like to be in a very small place and barely have room for the camera but still be able to shoot. This is the way that the solitude of the filmmaker is at its utmost, because you are watching the film you are doing."
But Simon also sees a positive aspect in the position of a woman as the director.
"I belong to a generation of women who have taken the place they were not supposed to take," she said. "It's different for young women who are very strong. When I did [one of my first films] At All Costs, it was great that they felt that I was not very important. That's a great advantage for women, when they are not very respected, they can see things that a man wouldn't be able to see. Because they do not see you as a complete human being."
As a director, Simon does not want to have a dominant position in the sense of barking commands and people executing them.
"Sometimes I'm waiting to see what I'm going to do, and I have to have people who are ready to do that with me. I'm not interested in telling what I'm going to do. If I tell, it's going to ruin it. Also, in documentaries, I'm completely focused on what's happening and open to it. So I can't have a dominant position. I know where I want to go, but I have to be open, it's very important."
Simon believes most creative women, including her, often lack confidence.
"I talked to Alice Diop. She's documenting for two years until she feels she is strong enough to do her project, which is obviously great, but she has to convince herself that she is good enough, that she knows enough of the subject. I feel I'm a bit like that," she said.
Working with other creative members of the team is essential for Simon.
"The sound engineer is very important. He has to be aware of everything that's going on. Recently I worked with a young sound engineer and he was so passionate and dedicated, although he'd sometimes end up in front of the camera, looking for that perfect sound."
On her last four films, she has been collaborating with the same editor, Luc Forveille.
"I'm a bad girl," Simon joked. "Sometimes I think I should do the editing myself. But editing is very important in order to get a distance, especially if I shoot the film myself. Having a dialogue with the editor helps me keep a distance and be faster."
One of the IDFAcademy participants asked Simon how she is dealing with the imperfection of her camera work.
"It's difficult," she replied. "I am trying to improve, but now we are having a hard time with digital cameras. They are very bad at panning, and that's a big problem. I find that a panoramic link between two people is very important. It's not old fashioned—it says the people are sharing a moment and a place. It was very easy with Super16 mm or 35 mm, but now it's very difficult. Digital imposes steady shots and fixed shots and I'm struggling a lot with that."
Learn more about Simon's new film in the IDFA 2020 program here.