Alice Diop was never interested in the outcome. In 2016, the filmmaker attended the trial of Senegalese mother Fabienne Kabou, who walked to the beach in Berck-Sur-Mar and left her 15-month-old daughter to get swept away by the ocean. Throughout Kabou’s emotional testimony and the court’s search to obtain a motivation, however, Diop—born to Senegalese parents—had embarked on her own emotional journey, wrestling with more personal anxieties about race, class, and maternity. There was no question of guilt—only questions about how this could happen and who else might be capable of it.
Those bigger, deeper insecurities make up the emotional arc of Saint Omer, Diop’s first narrative feature and attempt to process and translate her courtroom experience. She centers it through the eyes of Rama (Kayije Kagame), a pregnant academic who visits the eponymous French town to witness immigrant Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga) stand trial for infanticide. With transcripts from the actual proceedings, Diop utilizes her documentarian instincts to recreate several days of monologues, cross-examinations, and witness statements, tethering long passages of dialogue to more abstract dreams, memories, and conversations Rama has about her own mother and impending motherhood.
Saint Omer, which made its New York Film Festival debut last week and earned France’s official Oscar selection, isn’t new territory for Diop. Her documentaries examine the hardships of people on the fringes of French life, most prominently seen in her last film We, a portrait of marginalized communities in Paris, which earned her the Berlin Film Festival’s Best Documentary award. In this narrative-focused pivot, she has taken a true-crime trial and infused it with similar concerns, interrogating complicated maternal relationships and the circumstances that led to this tragedy. On a recent afternoon inside the lobby of the Empire Hotel, Diop spoke with The Film Stage about her jump outside of documentary filmmaking and the experience of crafting a collective catharsis.
The Film Stage: I’ve read about you feeling compelled to attend this trial in 2016. But at what point did you realize there might be something narratively to put onscreen?
Alice Diop: That’s a very hard question. I confess that I’m not so interested in narrative in cinema, so I think that’s not the question that I asked myself. I think what made me do the film was the emotional trajectory or journey that I experienced by attending the trial. It felt like a psychoanalysis on fast-forward, or a therapy in a super-fast machine. I went into the trial as one woman and I came out as a different woman—a woman who had been absolved, digested all sorts of very personal things—and this is something that I saw other women experienced, too. So the narrative is not so much Laurence; it’s the journey that I experienced and what drives Rama. Because it’s really Rama in the film that carries the narrative. Laurence doesn’t change at all. And since the central stake of the film is not the question of guilt or a verdict, I think what really drives the film is the experience Rama has, which is one that I personally experienced.
Was it at all difficult to put this film together, considering the tragedy at its core and the experience it had on you?
Of course, but I wouldn’t say there was much hesitation. Because this is a real story I have a moral responsibility to the life of this real woman that I’m using to make a film. So the authorization that I’m giving myself demands an ethical and moral framework that, in my eyes, is unshakeable. The entire mise-en-scène of the film is based on the ethical questions of using this story to make a film. In France, trials are public—there’s no copyright, so I have a moral right to use it. I’m not making the character of Laurence say what suits me, and this is the way that we worked on the edit. I don’t use your usual shot-countershot to arbitrarily guide what the viewer is going to see. Instead we see what any person at the trial would see, which gives the viewer the great freedom of coming to their own reading, like what I experienced at the trial. And so Rama is not there to do or express what I want her to say. The long, single-shot scenes that we have allow the viewer to move around in his or her interpretation.
Early on there’s a quote from Laurence in which she states: “I’m not sure why I killed my daughter, but I hope this trial will give me the answer.” You’ve previously mentioned that quote shaped your film style and compositions. How so?
I don’t know if it was the sentence itself that influenced the mise-en-scène. I think it was influenced by the mystery of this woman. She doesn’t know why she did what she did—she doesn’t know who she is, and I don’t understand her at all. The more the trial evolved, the murkier it became—the more we found it difficult to find who she is. There are no easy answers. So I knew that the film would work from this ambiguity. That’s why I start the film with [the images from Hiroshima Mon Amour] of the women having their heads shaved. These are highly ambiguous images. Are we dealing with women who are guilty, or are they victims? It’s probably a little bit of both. I think that’s why Marguerite Duras was interested in these women and that’s also what interested me in Laurence. It’s a way of getting at the tremendous complexity of the human being.
The fact that this has been carried out by a Black woman allows me to go against the stereotypes that are so often projected onto Black women, and to show a Black woman who is deeply complex and deeply ambiguous—a character I had never seen in cinema. It was important to see a character like that. So the film has no need to deliver answers. The fact that there is an absence of answers forces each viewer to go inside themself and deal with the abysses, their dark places, and that’s more interesting than the questions of whether she’s guilty or not.
There were multiple women sitting around you at the trial, and you’ve said that helped inform you that this could be a universal story. How did you arrive at that conclusion?
I didn’t have any conversations with these other women; it was just manifest, clear and obvious, that they were totally disturbed and upset by things I didn’t know specifically. Yesterday at a screening a woman came to see me and she was crying and she didn’t need to say what it was exactly—because I knew it must be related to her connection to her mother or her child. I’m not interested in knowing these specific stories. I know that it’s a kind of collective history.
The story of Laurence—this woman who has done the unthinkable, the unrepairable—confronts all of us with the question of maternity. And this happens at every screening. I don’t need people to say what it is that’s making them feel this way. The passage about “chimera” is when most people break down because there’s something archaic and biological about hearing about that link to the mother that just tears people apart. And I don’t need that to be made explicit. Everyone has their own reasons, and the fact that the experience is lived is more important than knowing what it specifically is.
I did want to ask you about that closing passage about “chimera,” in which Laurence’s defense advocate speaks about the biological connection between mothers and children. What was it like to craft and shoot that scene, and how did it help shape Rama’s perspective?
That’s a very personal interpretation. I think that Rama’s experience is shaped from the beginning to the end of the film. We worked on really containing the emotion, the feeling throughout the edit, and in that moment of the chimera something explodes. But it’s not just for Rama; it’s for all the women who witnessed the trial, it’s for all the women who see the film, and that’s something that we really worked on coming to this moment. In the chimera passage, the actress is facing the camera, she’s looking into the camera. It’s no longer just Rama that’s addressed—it’s every one of us who is addressed. And in a sense we’re being invited or summoned to go off and think about our own chimera. There’s something very specific about that scene that’s not just about Rama.
Would you say Rama is a fictional version of yourself?
Rama is not at all shaped or created based on what I experienced. I don’t think that would have been interesting to people or have had such a universal reach, because my own private life is not necessarily universal. I built the character of Rama from emotions that I felt and observed in other women. Rama is not an alter ego that I created just to talk about myself. That’s not something I needed to do, because I work on these things in my own life. Rama reveals issues that go far beyond my life. Issues dealing with French society, racism, the colonial past, the possibility that Black women have to achieve the dreams that they entertain and the way racism builds a very specific loneliness that Laurence experienced. There are so many differences. My mother died when I was 17. I was not pregnant when I attended the trial. It’s just not the same, and I think there’s plenty of Rama from my two co-screenwriters Marie N’Diaye and Amrita David. I think it’s reductive to think of Rama as a self-portrait. It was something different.
Overall, how cathartic was it to be back in a courtroom, listen back to the testimony, and relive those moments?
Catharsis comes from the fact that everyone has a mother. And in many, many cases, that relationship to the mother is a very complex one. Certainly not a simple, easy one. All the women who worked on the film, even the men, were confronted with very personal things during the shoot. We went through a collective psycho-drama, psycho therapy, by hearing that text and we were all confronted with our own twisted, complex, magnificent relationships to our mothers. All of us on the film dove into that. It was a collective catharsis that I would even refer to as a psychodrama.
Saint Omer screened at the 60th New York Film Festival and will be released by Super.