The French Ministry of Justice’s “Cinema Mission’’ calls the shots

The French Ministry of Justice’s “Cinema Mission’’ calls the shots

14 May 2024
Saintes Court (« Anatomy of a fall ») Dylan Marchal

Shooting a movie in a court or a series in a prison is possible with the support of the French Ministry of Justice’s “Cinema Mission’’. Perrine Piat, in charge of fiction projects and heritage enhancement within the ministry, explains what it is all about.

In 2012, the French State and the Agency for the State’s Intangible Heritage (known as APIE), in charge of supporting public services in enhancing their heritage, decided to standardize the procedures for hosting shoots in places that report to the Ministry of Justice. Prior to this, each request was processed on a case-by-case basis by the relevant departments and organizations, whether it be prisons, courts or centers managed by the Youth Judicial Protection Service (known as PJJ). “In 2012, the government has had the will to make the various ministries’ procedures for hosting and supporting cinematographic and audiovisual productions consistent.” This decision gave rise to the Ministry of Justice’s Cinema Mission that now centralizes all requests: “We take care of filming in prisons and courts to offer a more harmonious service that is more intelligible from the outside.” Feature films, student short films or television series: in 2023, 80 film shoots benefited from the support of the Ministry of Justice’s Cinema Mission.

On average, the Cinema Mission receives 130 requests per year. An appetite for the legal world that Perrine Piat explains: “Today, we can see or produce images of everything, all the time. Since cameras are not usually allowed there, filming in prisons and courts is the exception. These places remain mysterious and fascinating to writers, directors and the public.”

A vast heritage

In total, 164 administrative courts and 190 correctional institutions, spread across mainland France and Overseas Territories, can be made available for filming. “There’s more than enough,” says Perrine Piat with a laugh. A vast heritage with varied architecture: “When people picture a court, they imagine an old, wooden courtroom. In fact, many courts have been renovated and are now very modern, like the Paris Administrative Court for example.” The same goes for prisons. “Some are new or have been recently renovated, and do not correspond to the way we commonly imagine them.” The Cinema Mission has a pool of facilities to meet the directors’ expectations in terms of aesthetics, while trying to present a realistic image of justice.

PJJ centers, however, serve less as settings. “A closed educational center resembles a school building. It’s easier for productions to recreate this setting outdoors.

The Cinema Mission identifies the available filming locations and organizes the work of the teams to respect the sites’ usual activity. “This is the most restrictive part, Perrine Piat explains, courts are very busy, and most prisons too.” Planning shoots in these locations requires adaptation. Regarding courts, judicial vacation periods are ideal because they involve less intense activity. When it comes to prisons, the Cinema Mission collaborates with the Interregional Directorate of Prison Services (known as DISP). “Prison governors tell us what is possible and what is not. From time to time, some wings are disused or under construction, which is perfect for filming. And at times, some prisons are not yet open and therefore available, but as they seem too brand new, it is less appealing to productions.”
Being in touch with productions and prison governors, the Cinema Mission has an educational vocation. It raises awareness among film crews of the singular nature of the locations where they are required to work, and prepares prison staff to host filming. “In prison, there can be unforeseen events, and in court too. We try to encourage dialogue between productions and prison staff, so that the former get the images they want and the latter are satisfied to host them.”

“A realistic view of justice”

In addition to providing filming locations, the Cinema Mission also offers to support teams in writing scripts. A proofreading committee, made up of magistrates and clerks who are cinema enthusiasts, proofreads the scripts and gives insights and advice on procedural matters. “The way we commonly imagine the justice system is inspired by American justice, as depicted in movies and on television. It is very common for the committee to proofread scenarios mentioning a judge with a gavel, or even a wig: attributes that do not exist in France!''

Screenwriters and directors can also participate in immersions in courts or prisons to observe how these institutions operate from the inside. Perrine Piat explains how it helped director Jeanne Herry for her movie “All your faces’ (Advance on receipts before production from the CNC): « Not only did she immerse herself in prison, but she also took a training course in restorative justice to grasp her subject as best as possible (…) It is a good movie that gives a realistic view of justice.’’

The Cinema Mission also meets screenwriters and directors: “We don’t just respond to requests. We are also proactive.” Meetings to present justice careers, fairs and festivals, talks in schools, a host of actions that highlight lesser known aspects of judicial work. “A few professions and procedures are shown on screen very often, others much less. Civil justice, for example, is rarely addressed on the big screen and on television. Yet it is the one that affects people the most.”

IN order to bridge this gap, magistrates can follow training to learn how to best support and advise cinema teams. “We help productions to represent justice as accurately as possible.”

“The prison guards were extras”

Movies that have been recently supported by the Ministry of Justice’s Cinema Mission include “Anatomy of a Fall’’ by Justine Triet, winner of the Palme d’Or, the Best Film César award and the Best Original Screenplay Oscar (Advance on receipts before production from the CNC). Justine Triet’s team contacted me in October 2021. They were looking for a court near Chambéry to shoot in winter, as the story takes place in Savoie,” says Perrine Piat. “Outside vacation periods, all the courts that were aesthetically suitable were very busy. I spent eight months asking one after the other, trying to change schedules and getting further and further away from Chambéry. I eventually found a courthouse in Saintes (in the French department of Charente-Maritime) that was a perfect fit, and they filmed in the spring. The set designers changed several elements of the courtroom: the seats went from red velvet to green leather, the floor was redone and a large painting was created and placed behind the presiding judge's seat. “At the end of the shoot, the team asked the president of the court if he wanted to keep the decoration or get back to the courtroom as it was before. Today, the room still looks the same!’’

Justine Triet’s feature film also benefited from the help of the proofreading committee: “We made them proofread the script. They didn't change anything and simply gave some vocabulary tips. The story was already very well constructed and documented.”

Several other soon-to-be-released movies have been supported by the Cinema Mission: “Visiting Hours” (La Prisonnière de Bordeaux) by Patricia Mazuy, with Hafsia Herzi and Isabelle Huppert in the leading roles, filmed partly at the Mont-de-Marsan prison in the Landes, and also “The Count of Monte-Cristo’’, by Alexandre De La Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte, with French star Pierre Niney. The film crews settled in the Paris Court of Appeal for a few days.

Perrine Piat very especially recalls the shooting of “An Ordinary Case” (Le Fil), Daniel Auteuil's next movie that took place in the Draguignan court for ten days and the Tarascon detention center for three days. “The prison guards were extras, the film crew was great. Daniel Auteuil plans to organize screenings in the prison and the court. He even gladly signed autographs. A very good memory.”

Bringing life in a different way to institutions that sometimes deal with serious human issues is another commitment made by the Cinema Mission. “Seeing personalities like Josiane Balasko, Isabelle Adjani, Yvan Attal or Daniel Auteuil come to a court or a prison is exciting for the staff who work there. Allowing these encounters is also part of enhancing the State’s intangible heritage.”

Contact the Ministry of Justice’s Cinema Mission: