Interview of Benoît Masocco, producer and director of " C'est quoi cette question ? "
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"The best way to destroy prejudice... Is to expose it."
Every person featured on C’est quoi cette question ? has a characteristic that not only causes them to be asked the same questions again and again, but also leaves them open to discrimination. That is why they agreed to come on camera to answer the most common questions. Differences are erased and the viewer sees things differently. That is how this programme helps people understand each other better. The tone is frank yet fun: the answers are always honest, sometimes moving, and often funny. Benoît Masocco, the show's director and producer, believes that this is the recipe for ending stereotypes.
How did this show come about?
It came from an Australian show spotted by the Newen development teams. I developed it for CAPA because it embodies the social values that we care about. We shopped the pilot around to different broadcasters. When TF1 Initiatives got involved, things started to move quickly.
The four themes covered in the first series are the LGBT community, disadvantaged youths, people in wheelchairs and those living with trisomy 21. Why did you choose these groups?
We had a fairly wide range of themes to choose from when it came to communities that needed to dispel preconceptions about themselves. We worked with TF1 Initiatives to make our selection and we were guided by the values that they support through their actions throughout the year. It was natural that we would choose to hear from people who use wheelchairs, the LGBT community, and disadvantaged youths. As for the trisomy 21 theme, it tied in with the story told in the drama Mention particulière (1)
Who is featured?
People who have values to promote, who see their differences as positive and who want to share them. We chose them based on how well they fit the theme and for their ability to communicate their feelings to others. We truly wanted to show that you can make your differences into not only a strength, but also a springboard to better things. They had to be willing to open up about topics that touched on the characteristics (and sometimes traumas) that had made them who they are.
How did you prepare them for filming?
Once we finished the casting, we had to build up trust with them. We often had to restore their confidence a few days before filming and overcome their entirely natural apprehensions, as they would be broadcast on the largest channel in France. These preparations were vital for making sure they could open up during the filming. And it worked.
What was the approach?
It is closely related to psychoanalysis. As was the case in the original version, the interviewees face the camera in a studio against a white background. The minimal staging creates a more intimate space. They speak either individually or in pairs. I was working the prompter, bringing up questions using a remote. This was a technical aspect that was not part of the Australian version. On that show, the questions were asked on pieces of paper placed in front of the interviewees. With the prompter, the individuals read the questions while facing the camera – i.e., facing the viewer – but without looking directly into the lens (in production we know that this makes them look more animated; it is hard to express oneself facing a camera, unless they are a seasoned professional – editor's note).
What else were you determined to keep from the Australian version?
The straightforward tone in the questions and the answers. One of the filming rules was to not censor themselves. We wanted them to be completely unfiltered. On our end, we had to be direct, or even personal, in our questions, which is not easy to do as we had to go for it without destroying the trust we had built. We told ourselves there were no taboos or lines to cross, and no bad questions, only inappropriate ways to ask them or to try to get a response.
On the flip side, what did you decide to change?
The main difference is the length. The Australian concept aired 30 minutes on each theme. We decided to film 5 episodes on each theme, with a short one-minute version for broadcast and a longer, two- or three-minute version for social media. All the episodes will also be available on MYTF1, with a 12-15 minute module on each theme.
The goal of the programme is to change how we see people who are subject to discrimination due to ignorance, by making people understand their differences. How does the short format you chose contribute to this effort?
I thought it was the right choice. A 30-minute show about disability, for instance, would mostly be watched by those affected by the issue, but it would not bring in others. Conversely, these short formats ensure that the majority of viewers are not directly affected by the issue. And that is our target audience, the people who know little about the issue and for whom we need to break down barriers.
How did you prepare the questions?
We created a panel of predominately young people to write them. Again, the rule was to not censor themselves. In the end, the questions came together fairly easily. I noticed that we all had the same questions in mind. And sometimes the same stereotypes. We deliberately chose questions that would be provocative. And the answers we got are amazing!
What's an example?
To break down stereotypes, you have to come at the stereotype with questions that you would never just go up to someone and ask, like asking a young person from a disadvantaged neighbourhood if he has a criminal record. A politically correct question like "How do you feel about the justice system?" would not necessarily elicit the same kind of enlightening and spontaneous response and would not get the same reaction for the viewer.
Did you have any surprises?
Yes, most notably how our interviewees reacted! We asked them the questions they hear all the time and that may really annoy them because they are born out of stereotypes. So they wanted to get the facts straight and they were more than happy to talk to us! It was great to see. They were able to make jokes that the rest of us would never make about their situations.
How does this approach differ from the documentaries you typically work with?
With documentaries, the creator examines a certain theme. Here it is the opposite, you have to remove yourself from the process and play the role of instigator to get the speakers to tell their stories.
What is the show's philosophy?
It is that the best way to break down prejudice is to expose it and show that it is totally unfounded. Getting along does not mean keeping your mouth shut and pretending not to see differences. Should we let our kids ask questions of people in wheelchairs? According to our subjects, the answer is yes! Kids should ask all the questions they want because that is how we normalise differences. We asked all our subjects: if you had a magic wand, would you change yourself? Most said no because their differences make them who they are and they would prefer to remain that way. I think that is amazing and it really sums up the show's philosophy: not only is there no reason to be afraid of any differences (disability, sexual orientation, etc.) but also if you are affected, no matter what it is that makes you different, you can accept yourself and turn that difference into a strength.
What are you hoping for?
The feedback I am most looking forward to is from people who are also affected, including those not featured in the show. The people for whom C’est quoi cette question ? helped start a conversation or a discussion that no one around them was brave enough to have before.
Airing on TF1 means a lot of exposure. What are you worried about, as a producer?
As you say, we are aware that we are very exposed, but that is also our greatest chance to reach a large audience and help change things. Being broadcast on TF1 means the show will be taken more seriously, not only because of the reach of the channel, but also because of its status. The channel has positioned itself as representing all the diversity France has to offer and highlighting the need to open a dialogue between different communities.
(1) A drama directed by Christophe Campos and broadcast on TF1 in 2017 that tells the true story of Laura, a 20-year-old woman with trisomy 21 who decides to take the Baccalaureate exam. The story was sponsored by UNESCO and recognised at the Fiction TV Festival in La Rochelle in 2017, winning the prizes for best screenplay and best new actress for Marie Dal Zotto. It also stars Hélène de Fougerolles and Bruno Salomone.
Interview by Maud Fayat.