Located in Paris in a building that once housed the studios of Pathé Films, La Fémis (an acronym — more or less — of "Fondation Européenne pour les Métiers de l'Image et du Son") is one of the most prestigious film schools in the world, offering a four-year program not only in every aspect of production but also distribution, exhibition and programming. Its goal is to provide students with a well-rounded knowledge of all aspects of cinema, teaching not only business sense and technical skills but grounding them in an all-encompassing love of movies that is as much a part of French culture of wine and croissants.
The Competition records the entry process at La Fémis as students apply for specific fields of study. Filmed by Claire Simon, who taught at the school for a decade, it begins with the reconstruction of one of the earlier images in film history, the workers leaving the Lumière factory in 1895. A group of young men and women stand outside a metal gate. The doors open and a crowd of roughly 1,000 applicants walk in. After a short test in which they're asked to analyze a film clip, more than 900 students are eliminated, leaving a small group to face the approval of a panel of instructors in personal interviews.
Much of Simon's film is devoted to showing these panels at work, grilling the young applicants and often agonizing over their decisions once the panelist has left the room. It's like a combination of a job interview and a visit to a high school counselor where you're not only supposed to provide information but also defend it. Students are judged by the strength of the projects — some bring along storyboards and elaborate charts — but also on their personalities, their passion for their ideas. Some of the students are devoted cinephiliacs (their highbrow influences include Truffaut, Cocteau and Demy) while others have more difficulty articulating their plans. The instructors rigorously debate the merits of both, even defending those to whom they've reacted negatively. (Simon refrains from showing most of these.) As one of the judges sincerely defines her dilemma, "I don't want to stop a guy from doing what he needs to do just because he's crazy."
You don't need a particular interest in film schools to find The Competition absorbing. Following in the tradition of Frederick Wiseman, Simon turns her camera on the workings of an institution, its traditions as well as its human side. This is a film about people sharing their hopes and ambitions and straining to reach each other. Their goals may be different (one young woman expresses a desire to run a small-town cinema; a young man offers a melodramatic scenario so complicated that the panel continues to untangle its string of ex-spouses and siblings even after he's left the room), but they're all presented as important facets of the school and its tradition.
The Competition is also an optimistic film, a hopeful work about the lifeblood of cinema. The teachers express their faith in the students' projects, the producers and distributors suggest that the new faces before them will keep the industry alive, and the students see a chance to bring their often unsophisticated ideas to life. When Simon watches those tall gates open and close on the La Fémis campus, she's not just winking at the 124-year-old Lumière tradition; she's watching its future.