This year’s Berlinale was marked by Nicolas Philibert’s surprising victory with his modest and intimate documentary about a Parisian psychiatric institution, which prompted us to question the established boundaries between what we consider normal and mentally ill. Interestingly, another documentary exploring a French medical facility had its premiere in the Forum section and immediately became one of the most memorable films of the 73rd edition. Claire Simon’s Notre Corps (Our Body) isn’t the first time the filmmaker has delved into the inner workings of institutions and public spaces, which has led to somewhat flawed comparisons with Frederick Wiseman’s style. For Simon’s camera, whether in a film school, a kindergarten, or a small company, always seeks out the human interactions that emerge within the bureaucratic framework that motivates them. 

Set in the gynecology service of Hôpital Tenon in Paris, Our Body cannot be classified as a typical “institutional documentary” or a film mostly driven by fascination with medical imagery, such as Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica (2022). Simon, who operates the camera herself, takes us on a three-hour-long exploration through the hallways, operating rooms, and medical offices, delving into the diverse experiences that women have with their bodies. Far from putting a distance between her gaze and the subjects she’s following, Simon boldly places herself within these shared experiences of women, hence fully reflecting the sense of togetherness which the title of the film refers to. 

I discovered Our Body at a stage when I was feeling hopelessly exhausted after many battles I fought with and against my own body. Everything felt so familiar – the smell of antiseptic, blues and whites of cold and clean fabrics, hums and buzzes of old machines – that I even wondered if my illness-stricken small world invaded everyone’s reality. While watching the film, I realised there was also another familiar feeling that emerged when Simon revealed her own failing body and incorporated it into an act of creation. It echoed the same urge to keep creating that I felt when I crafted short videos from the images of my MRI and ultrasound scans during my stay in the intensive care unit following a pulmonary embolism. This interview is also a product of that feeling, one that I hope never to lose, no matter what happens next.

– OS

I remember that you were teaching at Paris 8 University Vincennes-Saint-Denis when I started my master’s degree in the film studies department and you had a course titled “The Body”, but the next year you changed the title to “I am ill”. Looking back after watching your film, I’m curious if these courses were a reflection of your own journey that led to the genesis of this project?

These courses weren’t necessarily related to the film. That was way before I started to shoot but I believe that the body is the fundamental subject of cinema. That’s why I wanted to make a course about the body and I worked really hard to prepare the syllabus that year, searching for film excerpts from Keaton, Chaplin, Rouch, Hitchcock, etc. My courses typically involve watching excerpts from films, discussing them and I also expect students to make short essay films at the end of the semester. However that year, they simply didn’t grasp what I was trying to explain. The following year, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, I thought it would be interesting to have a course titled “I am ill” where each student could talk about their own illnesses and ask themselves what it means to represent these conditions in cinema. It worked really well; we had fascinating discussions together, and I managed to invite some filmmakers I truly admire, such as Denis Gheerbrant, who made this amazing film about illnesses called La vie est immense et pleine de dangers (1995).

Hospitals are spaces that we visit frequently and as a result, we have well-established imagery, judgements or assumptions regarding their representation, inner workings and organisation. But at the same time, even as public spaces, they shape our personal lives, leave emotional traces behind. How do you think these primary views, whether they’re on social or personal terms, find their way into your film?

The hospital has always been a secondary issue in the film. It is more a storytelling device than an actual subject. As a space, it allowed me to approach women who deal with gynaecological questions, to talk about birth, life and death. I wasn’t interested in this hospital or hospitals in general to be honest. Of course, there are many documentaries about hospitals, but that has never been my project to do a hospital documentary. There was just this idea – which I found really beautiful and interesting – that in this hospital and in many others, all the pathologies related to gynaecology, whether they are normal or morbid, are united in one service. Actually, it was my producer, Kristina Larsen, who experienced a revelation during her approximately two-year illness regarding this space for women, including transgender people, and proposed me to make a film about it. I wanted to make a film about women patients and I was very relieved when I saw the rushes because, it turned out exactly what I wanted it to be. 

In regards to hospitals, there are so many things to say about how the hospitals work, the relations between the doctors and the patients or about how it takes so much time to make an appointment. There’s also the fact that in France, the hospitals are public and everyone really gets equal treatment. At least in this hospital, I can attest to that. Every day I went there, I had the impression that I was entering a different world from what we have in our daily lives. Homeless people would be treated in the same way as a bourgeois. I know this because I saw it. I even had discussions with the nurses I filmed and they’re so proud of working in the hospital because they know their job is essential to life. At the same time, they work so hard yet earn very little. It’s the same for the doctors. The surgeon who treats the endometriosis has 30 appointments in the morning. I remember talking to a woman who had to call the hospital every day for three months to have an appointment with him. These are the problems we encounter in hospitals but, as I was saying, my project was to tell, to show in the most humane way possible, what it means to have a genital apparatus. Because it’s a heavy burden that accompanies a woman throughout life from the age of 12 to 90, but it’s never told. That’s why I considered hospital as a narrative thread rather than a subject. There’s a hallway that figures in the film which I think, encapsulates this very beautifully, where we see people passing each other, going outside to get a bit of sun, the patients but also doctors and nurses would be there. To me, that hallway was the perfect image of the hospital. 

Our Body

I find it fascinating that this spatial perspective you just mentioned is also accompanied by a temporal one, encompassing women’s lives through different moments and struggles: birth, puberty, adulthood and eventually, death. 

I wasn’t only interested in filming the consultations. The surgeries, including the Caesarean sections were a huge revelation for me. Exploring the interior of the body and the question of representing our bodies was always the primary focus. For example, in the context of the assisted human reproduction process (AHR), we observe this couple who can’t have children kissing before the man goes to provide a sperm sample and the woman undergoes oocyte retrieval; we witness the inequality in their suffering and the treatments they undergo. But we also get to see this laboratory where the personnel are physically engaged throughout the entire operation. In other words, we’re not dealing with an isolated scientific process that severs all connections. Men and women who handle and transport the embryos do so with their hands and the chances of fertilisation increase depending on their manual dexterity. I believe that cinema has a very important power that derives from the act of showing and what I wanted to do was to show every stage and aspect of human life from birth to death.

Gender transition also figures as an important part of your film. By including transmasculine individuals, you also seem to bend the categories of gender in a rather biologically codified and isolated space for women. 

Because it’s part of this service both in surgery and normal appointments, and it’s free – which I thought was fascinating. I found this extraordinary doctor who’s in charge of transitions and I started to film him but, at some point, it became really difficult to shoot the nursing procedures. Yet the same two nurses would take care of mastectomy and gender transitions whether it’s male to female or female to male. And from a philosophical point of view, it was so compelling. I didn’t even have to make any efforts to bring these operations together, because they are taken care of by the same service.

As someone who spent a lot of time in hospitals, I often feel that medical professionals tend to treat the body as a separate object, overlooking its connections with the human psyche. But in Our Body, we’re always reminded of human presence by the other. The body is never instrumentalised nor alienated. Could you tell me a bit more about the act of care you captured so generously?

All the doctors and nurses I filmed are definitely conscious of the connections they establish with the patients. They are really careful because from the patients’ point of view, it’s really important to understand what they have, how everything works, etc. I filmed more women doctors than men but I’ve always found the latter very attentive and responsive too. However, it is true that the pro-natalist ideology is well-supported and they repeatedly say how it is important to preserve the fertility and fundamental to conceive a baby. I believe that if we were to inverse things, we wouldn’t question a man’s choices regarding the fertility. For example, there is a male doctor who places great emphasis on fertility preservation for his patients. But these women suffer greatly from endometriosis and one can easily see that their main concern isn’t their inability to have children; rather it’s to end their pain or at least have a normal sexual life.

Throughout most of the film, we can clearly see that you’re behind the camera. Even as a formal choice, it contributes to the intimacy and immediacy of the shooting process. What are the reasons behind this direct involvement? Did it help you to facilitate contact with the subjects?

I prefer being behind the camera for several reasons. Firstly, I love improvising and it is way more easier to improvise when you control the camera. Secondly, long time ago, when I first got into filmmaking I realised that what the operator sees is different from what I actually see. That’s why I prefer exploring and finding the frame by myself. I also prefer the relation this mode of filmmaking allows me to have with people. There’s also the physical aspect of being able to position myself and to freely film people’s bodies. I’ve always liked filming bodies but in this film, it was fundamental. For example there are these moments where a patient would take off her clothes, or the doctor would palpate the patient while explaining what is happening in their body. I found these moments really touching and I want to film them because you can’t explain these feelings to another person.

Speaking of intimacy and inexplicable feelings, I also want to bring up your presence in front of the camera and the very courageous decision of including your own illness in the film. Rarely do we see this kind of act in documentaries, where the director, who’s supposed to be the omnipotent eye behind the camera regarding their subjects, lays bare their own fragility and weakness. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this decision. 

It happened to during the shooting. Actually, we weren’t allowed to film ‘the announcement’ as they call it, which is the moment when a doctor tells the patient that they have serious disease like cancer. The doctors were telling me that it is impossible to tell a patient that there’s a film crew who wants to shoot this moment. They may have doubts about the disease but if they come to the hospital, it’s because there’s an assumption of cancer. Whereas I already knew I was sick. But since I didn’t know the extent of my sickness, I had to see a doctor. And if there’s anyone who’s convinced that it’s worth filming, it was me. So I asked Céline Bozon, who worked as the director of photography for my previous film to come and film this appointment and another one with the surgeon. 

It’s a rather straightforward question but – how did you manage to finish the film after the announcement? Did the film itself help you to overcome the burden of your illness, as a way of transcending your pain through art?

Yes! That’s what I told the doctor. It’s because I saw other patients that I got to understand the details of the medical protocol and things I had to do during the treatment. Eventually it’s because there were other bodies, other lives than mine that everything felt easier.

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