Director Claire Simon shoots what—or rather, whom—she knows. And if her documentary subjects are any indication—an ex-diplomat determined to keep his failing business afloat; a pair of wide-eyed, hopelessly in-love teenagers; a screeching band of raucous schoolchildren—her Rolodex certainly runs deep.
“I’m like a novelist, more or less, in a glamorous way of thinking,” says Simon, speaking to the Straight en route from Geneva to a screening in Lausanne, Switzerland. “I meet things in my life and I feel that they are films.”
Born in London, England, but raised on a diet of reds and whites in Provence, the ambitious writer, editor, and director has been crafting fictional and nonfictional stories for more than 25 years. Frustrated with the fantastical films that dominated French cinema in the late ’80s, she began making documentaries that were instead grounded in the familiarity of everyday life.
Aside from the occasional spoken reference, it’s only the intimate nature of Simon’s films that hints at her personal connections with each of her “stars”. Dr. Jean-Marie Bouvier, the retiring physician in her first doc, Les Patients, was a close friend of her father’s; Jihad, the envoy turned entrepreneur in Coûte Que Coûte, is a friend of a former beau, as is Mimi, the free-spirited raconteur of the movie that shares her name. (“He was very prolific, this boyfriend,” the perceptive filmmaker admits with a laugh.)
Perhaps most notably, Simon has also looked to her daughter, Manon, for inspiration. She becomes a spectator at recess during the child’s grade-school years for Récréations, and later, Mom follows Manon’s summer love story with the village baker’s son, Greg, in 800 Kilomètres de Différence/Romance. Despite these real-life relationships, however, it’s the settings that drive Simon’s films, rather than the characters.
“I specially make films about places because I feel like places are like scripts,” she explains. “The scripts are inside the place and my job is to find it and to make it come out.”
This is nowhere more apparent than in Simon’s Les Bureaux de Dieu, a fictional story with actors woven from real voice recordings captured at a family-planning centre over the course of seven years, and in her latest work, Le Bois Dont les Rêves Sont Faits, a study of the diverse comings and goings at one of Paris’s busiest parks. This expansive collection makes up the bulk of this year’s French French series at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival.
Three other French-language flicks, including Flow Mechanics, an eye-opening account of the current refugee crisis, and The Final Passage, which explores France’s historic Chauvet–Pont d’Arc Cave using 3-D models, will join Simon’s films in the program, although it may be Simon’s fixation on the seemingly unanswerable question “What really is a story?” that produces the most engaging results.
“This is my obsession,” she says. “Each time I think I have an answer, I want to do another film and I feel like I’m at the beginning again.”
Les Patients opens the DOXA Documentary Film Festival's French French series at SFU's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Saturday (May 7).