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An interview with French director Claire Simon

11-10 12:04 TimeOut Beijing

Train stations aren’t usually high on the list when it comes to most outsiders’ image of France. But given the multi-ethnic cross-section of society that moves through a station like Paris’ Gare du Nord, it actually provides a much more accurate picture of the country than somewhere like the Eiffel Tower.

That’s certainly the sense one gets watching Claire Simon’s latest film, Gare du Nord. A feature film originally paired with Human Geography, a documentary also by Simon, Gare du Nord is a portrait of the titular Paris train station, which is the busiest in Europe. The film is the latest work in the French director’s long career portraying physical places through documentary, fiction or a melding of the two.

How did Gare du Nord and Human Geography come about? Were you always planning to make two separate films?

Yes. First I had the fiction project and then when I had written the script I decided I should do a documentary. I first worked on the script and then I thought it would be interesting to do the documentary because I wanted to know more about the actors, as when I did the fiction film I knew I would have to use non-professionals as stars.

Do you think Gare du Nord can be seen by itself, or does it need the wider context?

I don’t mind. I just know that with Gare du Nord, people won’t realise it’s a fiction film and will say it’s a documentary. You can have Robert De Niro in it and people will still think it’s a documentary if you’re telling the story of a black man or poor people. I think it’s just because I wanted it to look very true, and so I went for that, and maybe it worked too well. Some people think I can go with the actors into a bar and someone will talk to us. That doesn’t happen. I’m just working to get the interaction with real stories, and people are playing the characters, like any other film. If the film is documentary-like it’s because of the stories of the people, and because I used a survey as a major part of the narrative.

How was it filming in the station?

I liked it a lot because this is the way I think cinema should be: in the middle of life, in the middle of real life. It’s like a studio because it’s so well done, with the natural and artificial light. But on the other hand, it’s full of people and this is very exciting. I like to make films in the middle of the crowd. I think it’s really exciting and I don’t know why so few people do it.

Do the crowd dynamics change how you make the film after you’ve started shooting?

Not really. It’s more like if you have the audience in the film, like if you have the people you’re talking about in the film all the time. You have to be on the level. You can’t relax. You have to be on the human and political and physical level of the crowd. This is how I feel it, it’s not a theory, it’s just the effect of the crowd on my shooting. To learn to film in a crowd is interesting because I think I got more truth than if I were controlling everything.

How do you decide between documentary, fiction or a combination of both when you’re conceiving a project?

When writing the fiction, I have to know a lot of things about the place I’m portraying. Making a documentary helps me do this. I think if I make a documentary then I will know the place better. Then I will be able to do the fiction. Sometimes it’s also because of practical problems. It takes a long time to get money to make fiction. Documentaries, you can make them quicker, but then it won’t be taken as seriously as if it were fiction.

It’s so difficult, this kind of thing, that documentaries are taken less into consideration. Everyone is trying to avoid drawing attention to the presence of the camera and the filmmaker, so it will be seen like fiction and be considered better. I am really against that thing where you hide that you are in a documentary just to seduce the viewer. In fact, on the contrary, it is so strong to show your relationship with reality. It boasts that it’s present and true and happening now. I think it’s completely stupid to hide the way you make a film. It’s less true and less interesting for both sides.

Why do you think people take documentaries less seriously than fiction?

I think it’s because it costs less money. People think it’s more important if you invest a lot of money in the film.

How do you choose the subjects for your films? Is there one preoccupation you keep returning to?

The subject is the place. The question is how you film a place. A place is something that human beings have built and chosen. I think documentaries and cinema have a lot to do with places and how we make and live in places. I was more interested in the fact that Gare du Nord is a public place, it’s more of a public square than any other square in France, and that’s the thing that really struck me. In that sense, the point of view is very important because it’s about how the place strikes me. It’s like Frederick Wiseman, he’s a great documentary director. He films places, but more than places, he films institutions. I try to film public spaces, a place where anyone could be.

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