• GNCR Award


Swen de Pauw

Swen de Pauw
In Divan du monde (FID 2015), Swen de Pauw brought his camera into the lair of Georges Federman, a colourful nonconformist psychiatrist based in Strasbourg, and his office reverberated with living pains. His new investigation into institutions, A Sense of Justice, immerses us In a law firm in this same city. There, we can find Christine Mengus and Nohra Boukara, specialized in the rights of foreigners, supported by Audrey Scarinoff and their co-workers.. Stories from their sad, appalling or tragicomic cases alternate with their daily legal work. And as we hear snatches of consultations involving illegal entry or departure, deportation orders, the right to reside or medical assistance, we become witnesses to predictable tragedies, to the administrative or social precariousness induced by such predicaments, and to whole lives depending on court rulings. Implicitly, we discover the absurdity and contingencies of the inner workings of justice and verdicts, the complexity of intertwined criminal, civil, administrative, community or labour regulations, like so many labyrinths for foreigners to get lost into. Swen de Pauw paints a double portrait of clients and their lawyers, which has little to do with the usual theatrics and pomposity of courtrooms. No defence speeches, then, but a tedious, burdensome and thankless daily routine, with piles of files and strategies to implement. There is another theatre at work here: that of a small community of obstinate and determined legal practitioners, who work hard regardless of occasional pitfalls. The film shares a harsh, yet humorous at times outlook on work, on law as seen from the inside, fighting against its own contingencies, absurdities and dysfunctions, not to mention its hidden prejudice. With A Sense of Justice, Swen de Pauw takes an attentive and generous look at this brave little troop of women on the frontline.
(Nicolas Feodoroff)

Interview with Swen De Pau

In Le Divan du monde (2015), you worked on narratives by patients in Georges Federmann’s
cabinet. In Maîtres, we are once again confronted with a space with highly urgent stakes : a
lawyer’s practice specializing in the rights of foreigners. Can you explain this choice ? How did the
project originate ?

The project started with a very short email from Dr. Federmann asking me « Once the Divan is released,
will you promise to direct the lawyer’s version with Christine Mengus ? » I wasn’t interested at first, for
multiple reasons, but following my producer’s impulse, who was clearly highly motivated, I started
working in this place and discovering the team, the clients, the lifestories of all these people.
Once again, you form a cinema of closed spaces and of direct observation. How do you analyze
this ?
I always try and find the form that is adequate to the story I want to tell. Sometimes, like here, it’s
obvious : Maîtres just had to be shot in this manner ! And I like the constraints that are inseparable from
this kind of decisions. Despite their rigid aspect, they allow for a wide variety of potential films. In this
case, the final form is a very classical one.

According to which procedures and methods did you work with the members of this practice ?
The shooting was spread over a year. We tried to adapt as often as possible to the rhythm of the place.
Everyone in the practice was not necessarily there at the same time. For example, when the lawyers are in
court, we know that we are going to spend more time with the other members. Sometimes there are few
clients and we can focus on the basic labour. As each protagonist has their own personnality, we also
adapt to them, while taking care to have the same basic procedure with everyone, and then, depending on
the days, the personnalities, the mood (including those of my team), we took a finer approach with each

The film is about the law but also about work, about a certain form of thanklessness that is tied to
it. Why insist upon this ?

Because it would be hard to hide it ! It’s a very important part of the time spent on these files. And
because I love filming work. Labour. People working. The toughness of it, the silence, the tribulations,
what’s repetitive about it. And this thanklessness fascinates me. As for many kinds of intellectual labour,
it is present here. I was also very interested by the paths words take in order to make a case « exist », first
in an oral exchange, then in manuscripts, dictated, transcribed, printed out, as part of a file, and sent to the
tribunal, to the other party, etc. This circulation is not an easy one to film, it’s a challenge.

How did you organize the shoot with the practice’s clients ? How did you choose the cases, and
build the film’s dramatic development ?

The shoot was not easy to organize with the clients, the Law’s timeframe is not the same as cinema’s.
Sometimes, they were warned in advance, as soon as they took their appointments, and sometimes not. I
saw most of them once, rarely more, and I had a few seconds or minutes to explain the project and
convince them, just before their meeting. Which is completely the opposite of how I usually work, where
this approach is extremely long and precise. We filmed them, and they would go back home and decide
later, quietly, after having discussed it with the people around them, and depending on what had been
said, whether they would allow us to use what we had shot. We had already worked in this way on Le
Divan du monde and it’s simply a matter of trust between us and them. As for the unfolding of the
narrative, I cannot omit citing Laureline Delom, the editor, who contributed to this greatly and with whom
I really like thinking about these things. It is, as always, an extremely time-consuming task, going through
the rushes, editing, taking notes, filling entire notebooks, fillings pannels and blackboards with post-its,
and of building, deconstructing, shattering a timeline, until we’ve finally found it.

As in your previous film, there is a certain humour that is unexpected in this context. Why are you
attached to this tone ?

I knew that we had filmed certain funny scenes : the way the characters are protecting themselves, their
repartee when facing the lawyers, the absurdity of some of the administrative situations, the ability of
certain clients to always get in trouble, the relations between the members of the practice, the hierarchy
that they have to respect, the communication problems, the IT glitches… But during the editing, of course
we didn’t laugh anymore. It’s during the test screenings that we realized what worked or didn’t work. I had
the impression that given the subject I take on, if I didn’t keep a certain levity of spirit, I would be crying
the whole time. And what reconciles me with life is precisely the small wise-crack, made possible thanks
to the distance put in place by the lawyers, and that enables the characters to take a step back regarding
their condition. Because some people, even in a terrible situation, like to crack a joke. As if to reassure
themselves, or reassure others.

Could you comment on the title, that might seem surprising given that all the layers are female, and
that the clients have a central place on the film ?

« Maîtres » is the title given to female lawyers too. That’s the way they are addressed in their practice,
whether by their team or clients. It also enabled me to respect the will of the main protagonists, who are
not necessarily in favour of using the feminine form for their titles (they speak of a lawyer’s practice in
the masculine form). There’s also an element of domination that interests me a lot, whether within the
team, in their conversations with certain clients, or simply in the discussions about colonialism, like the
one that appears in the film. And it’s obviously how I think of the professionnals I shot : they are very
gifted, very impressive in their work. They are masters of their craft.
I guess the clients are, indeed, at the centre of the film. But I would make a distinction between the central
character and the main characters, as in Le Divan. Whereas the doctor was the central character (in real
life and onscreen), his patients were the main characters. Here, though the clients hold a central position,
the main characters are the Maîtres.

Interview by Nicolas Feodoroff

  • GNCR Award

Technical sheet

France / 2021 / 97’

Original Version : French.
Subtitles : English.
Script : Swen De Pauw.
Photography : Hervé Roesch.
Editing : Laureline Delom.
Sound : Martin Sadoux.
Production : Cédric Bonin (Seppia).
Filmography : Comme elle vient, 2019. Le Divan du Monde, 2016.