Entre nous: Alice Diop on “Saint Omer”

By Beatrice Loayza

In 2016, Alice Diop set out to the northern French town of Saint Omer to attend the trial of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese woman accused of killing her baby girl. The French media was enraptured by the crime; the details made for a textbook fait divers, a sensational news item spun by journalists desperate to satiate their scandal-starved readers. Yet, as the trial unfolded, Kabou and her actions remained distant and impenetrable; her case became a kind of mockery of our legal systems, reliant as they are on classification and concrete truths to administer justice. At every turn, Kabou defied expectations: she was an educated woman, beautifully articulate and poised even as she repeatedly tweaked her story depending, it seemed, on her mood. Baffled by her own decision to abandon her daughter on a beach, she claimed to be the victim of a voodoo spell. She claimed to love her. 

Diop has no interest in “solving” the case of Fabienne Kabou. In Saint Omer, she reimagines the trial from the perspective of an individual likely unconsidered or ignored by the French media: a Black academic and writer, Rama (Kayije Kagame), whose own anxieties around motherhood and inheritance are exacerbated by the story of Laurence Koly (Guslagie Malanda), Diop’s version of Kabou. 

The first-generation daughter of Senegalese immigrants herself, Diop has long explored the frictions of modern French identity from the perspective of the marginalized: immigrants from former French colonies in Africa and Southeast Asia, and their children, often raised in the multiethnic urban peripheries, or banlieues, outside of Paris, where Diop herself was born. Her earlier documentaries unravelled bitter political realities from specific experiences and contexts: in La mort de Danton (2011), an aspiring actor from the working-class suburbs contends with the creative poverty of an artistic field dominated primarily by white people; in La permanence (2016), refugees divulge their hardships and desires during appointments at a migrant medical centre. In Nous (2020), Diop’s canvas is larger. She traverses Paris along the RER B, a sprawling commuter rail that passes from the northernmost extreme of the city to the south, and meets up with everyday people: a mechanic from Mali; neighbourhood kids sliding down hills on scraps of cardboard; her sister, who is a home-visit nurse for the elderly.

Nous, in its loosely limned structure, and in the declarative punch of its title, is Diop’s grandest statement of intent: it bridges the divide between the centre and the periphery, the dominant and the marginal, urging us to build solidarities more profound than those premised on the politics of relatability. Saint Omer takes these principles and spins them into something like a ghost story in which mothers and daughters are haunted by one another.  

Winner of the Lion of the Future award at Venice, Saint Omer is Diop’s first fictional feature, though it mirrors the events of Kabou’s trial, and employs dialogue drawn directly from court transcripts. The script was conceived in collaboration with the acclaimed French novelist, Marie NDiaye (who co-wrote 2009’s White Material with Claire Denis), and Diop’s editor, Amrita Davis, which might account for its lulling, elliptical structure relative to the discovery-driven highs and lows of the usual courtroom drama. 

The trial scenes in Saint Omer play out long and uninterrupted, with cinematographer Claire Mathon relishing Laurence’s Mona Lisa gaze, drawing us into her mystery at a meditative pace, and allowing the questions she provokes to seep into our bones—as they do into Rama’s. At the beginning of the film, Rama delivers a lecture on Marguerite Duras, bringing to mind the writer’s provocative 1985 Libération article, “Sublime, Necessarily Sublime, Christine V,” in which she accuses a mother of murdering her four-year-old son. Rama, like Laurence, is an intellectual, formed in part by a Western education that sees her quoting Duras and studying the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, which doesn’t negate the particularity of her upbringing: in flashbacks, we see Rama as a child, perceiving her mother’s solitude and depression, or nestled between family members dressed in bedazzled boubous and kaftans. It’s not a contradiction, but rather a complication that dismantles archaic parameters of race and culture—a given for some of us, though not so obvious throughout the majority of France. Diop also summons Rama’s childhood with home video-esque footage reminiscent of the director’s archival self-insertion toward the end of Nous. In Saint Omer, Diop never enters the screen in a literal sense, yet the film is marked by the same intimacy of her documentaries, with Diop hovering phantom-like over the events, inviting us to listen, directing our collective gaze toward a common opacity.

Cinema Scope: Tell me about witnessing the trial of Fabienne Kabou. Is it easy to attend a trial in France? 

Alice Diop: It’s very easy. When I was there, I didn’t have any intention of documenting or reporting on it, though I did take notes. I was simply drawn to this woman, the fact that she is Black, that she is gifted, and that she carries herself with such mystery and complexity. 

Scope: What clicked in your head when you realized that you wanted to make a movie inspired by the events of Fabienne’s trial? 

Diop: It’s complicated, and my reasons are somewhat obscure. I was captivated by the way she spoke, by the fact that she left her child on the beach. I’m not particularly attracted to fait divers, but rather, I was drawn to the nature of the tragedy, and the fact that this story felt like a very contemporary version of the classic story of Medea. So, I saw it as a lens through which I could explore ideas about motherhood and intergenerational connections. 

Scope: Saint Omer, the city itself, represents a departure from your usual cinematic stomping grounds of Paris. 

Diop: Saint Omer is a symbol. I was interested in the metaphorical dimension of a Black woman in a small provincial town, so it could’ve been any small town outside of Paris. 

Scope: I read that a lot of the dialogue was drawn verbatim from the real-life trial. Can you talk about that decision and how you structured the trial dialogue? 

Diop: Yes, the material from the film’s trial comes from the minutes of the actual trial. In fact, my hope was that, through the use of fiction, I could bring to light precisely what I wished the transcripts had been able to tell me. I knew that they contained something that would allow one to interrogate what it means to be connected to a child—what does that inextricable bond between mothers and their children actually mean? It’s through the character of Rama that these stakes become clear. Subjecting that material, in raw form, to the curiosity of a spectator would’ve been disturbing to me. As we sculpted down the raw text from the real trial, we realized the importance of filtering the dialogue through the fictional character of Rama. It needed to reflect off her to speak to the ideas I had in mind. Plus, the language used by Fabienne was truly unexpected—it was extraordinarily precise, even literary. Her presence, her words, are in part what allows the film to go beyond the literal. 

Scope: Rama is the lens through which the trial is understood, but she’s also a kind of surrogate for you, no? You are also a Black woman working in an artistic and intellectual field who attended the trial.

Diop: I prefer not to think of it that way, although she does represent a double portrait within which my own history is reflected. Everything Laurence says is refracted, like a prism, through Rama’s interior. This was my way of curtailing a voyeuristic gaze. We see the story from a place that is just. 

Scope: You also collaborated on the script with Marie NDiaye and Amrita Davis. Were they as captivated by the story of Fabienne as you were?

Diop: They were fascinated, yes, but mostly I wanted to avoid using the usual techniques of screenwriting. Working with two people—a novelist and an editor—who aren’t screenwriters allowed me to create a particular kind of language that eluded conventions. It was sort of a dialectical process, the way we drew from the trial text to create something totally new. 

Scope: What was it about Marie’s work that you felt made her a good fit for the film?

Diop: I called Marie because the accused woman’s persona reminded me a lot of the characters from Marie’s novels, in their complexity and their power. Besides, Marie has a way of working that uses mystery as a point of departure, and she’s invented a very particular kind of language that seems to work around and encircle something invisible at its centre. 

Scope: There’s a long history of films that revolve around a trial or that employ the structure of a trial to ask questions about prevailing social attitudes and beliefs. I’m wondering if you conceived of Saint Omer with other courtroom films in mind. 

Diop: Not really. For me it’s not even a “trial” film. There is no sense of suspense. There are no revelations. What interests me about the structure of any trial is that it’s a closed-door arena centred around speech. There’s a metaphorical potency to this idea of people coming to this one place to hear what an accused person has to say and attempting to come up with a judgment based entirely on what is heard. So, it’s a privileged site of hearing and speaking. 

Scope: Interestingly enough, trials are about trying to pin down a kind of objective truth and about working through the actions of an accused person such that those actions can be properly classified and judged according to a fixed set of laws. At the end of the film, you don’t bother to show us the outcome of the trial.

Diop: The question of moral judgment and the judiciary process doesn’t interest me. I think the film is open, and it’s set up in such a way that anyone who watches it becomes a jury member. You can come up with your own conclusion, though what interests me, what I’m trying to draw attention to, isn’t a correct judgment. It’s about listening. It’s about tracing this woman’s psychological contours in a way that allows you to question yourself and consider intimate questions of your own.

Scope: I want to talk about an important through line in this film that also figures throughout the rest of your work, this question of the universal. The idea of universality is historically fraught because it’s often associated with whiteness and the notion that, per Richard Dyer, whiteness is a blank slate, unremarkable, neutral, and thus universally relatable. 

Diop: For me, whiteness isn’t universal. All my films say the contrary. They articulate the interior lives of Black characters but in a way that prompts big questions that should feel familiar to anyone. Laurence is a Black woman who killed her child because she was confronted with what may be one of the biggest human questions: What does it mean to be a mother? What is the nature of our connection to our own mothers? Every woman should be able to relate to this. 

I’m a Black woman, yet I’ve recognized myself in works of art, literature, and films made by white people. I’ve been affected by the questions those works pose. When I read Anna Karenina or Victor Hugo, I see myself. I know that if I can do it, the opposite is possible. I’m convinced that white people can see themselves in and identify with Black people, even if the Black person in question is presented in a specific, culturally disparate way. African can contain the universal. The Black body can contain the universal. I dare you to say that when you read a book by Toni Morrison, even if you’re white, its ideas have nothing to do with you. 

It’s true that Black experiences are rarely acknowledged. To upend this is my primary conviction, what guides me as a filmmaker. Rama is a Black woman, the child of immigrants, and her understanding of motherhood is filtered through her family’s immigrant story. That’s a very specific experience, both sociologically and culturally, but at the same time it contains something that is absolutely recognizable. It should resonate with women from all over the world, and that’s pretty much the reason why I made Saint Omer. 

Scope: I was blown away by the performances, particularly that of Guslagie Malanda, who plays Laurence. This being your first narrative film, I imagine it was also the first time you had to direct actors. 

Diop: I didn’t direct them so much as I simply chose them. My casting process was like a documentary film in that I was drawn to and chose a particular person because of their natural way of being. I didn’t direct the actresses to perform or fabricate emotions. I felt that the best direction was to create the right context in which those emotions could be generated in real time, to bring a greater authenticity to them. That’s part of the reason I recreated the trial and shot those scenes continuously as long 20-minute sequence shots. The continuity implicates the spectator in a way that makes them feel like they’re attending the trial, so its quasi-documentary in the sense that I created a space of reality rooted in fiction. We’d shoot and there’d be no cuts or repeating things throughout that time, so everyone was rooted in the moment and its atmosphere. That required my actors to trust me a great deal, because I’m asking them to let go and tap into feelings that are deep within them. It was all about creating a fictional context in which the intensity of the moment could be felt and inhabited as much as possible. Those 20-minute takes allowed the actors to be intensely present, even those who were silent. 

Scope: You’ve spoken in the past about how your work has always occupied this grey area between documentary and narrative. In terms of your process, how was Saint Omer different—or similar—to your way of working on your other films?

Diop: Documentaries can be very different from one another. Above all, I’m interested in creating new cinematic forms, and having it so that the formal aspects of the film are as closely aligned as possible to the subject. If a film has this level of intention, then it needs to be different every time. In some ways, I went about making Saint Omer in the same way I’ve made my other films—with an emphasis on research, with a desire to invent the most just form for the subject, which in the case of Saint Omer meant I had to cross over into the realm of fiction. 

The most significant difference for me with this film has been the reception and the new audiences I’ve been able to reach. Because it’s a narrative film, there was a bigger, more global market for it. It was a Venice selection and it even received some prizes. So, it’s been bigger for me in terms of visibility, because documentaries are more marginalized. Nevertheless, for me, documentary and narrative films stem from the same need and impulse. 

Scope: Have you noticed any differences in how the film has been received in France compared to the rest of the world? 

Diop: In France, the response to my film was huge. The film came out in November and the reviews were extremely positive. There were lots of articles and the whole thing felt like an event. At the same time, I did receive some negative criticism. However, I felt that it wasn’t about the film, but rather about me. The most common complaint was that it was too pretentious because there are references to Pasolini and Duras. I’m convinced that this kind of criticism wouldn’t have been applied to a film made by a white woman. For a Black intellectual woman to claim figures like Pasolini or Duras, for a certain—and very suspect—kind of French media person, it’s not right. There was a review in, I think, Le Figaro, that compared Saint Omer to a French film about cleaning ladies and nannies—working-class women. The two films have nothing to do with each other! That film was a popular comedy! The review went on about Saint Omer’s arrogance and pretentiousness, and it used that other film to explain what Saint Omer could have done better. It also said that that other film hasn’t been as widely recognized because a white guy directed it, whereas Saint Omer is being celebrated because a Black woman who cites Duras made it. 

Scope: It’s kind of like the scene in Saint Omer when the philosophy professor testifies and questions Laurence’s interest in Wittgenstein.

Diop: That’s exactly what it made me think of, and that’s part of what motivated me to make the film—the violence of certain kinds of criticism against people or ideas that aren’t where they’re “supposed” to be. Laurence Coly is told she’s too intellectual, that she should dedicate herself to subjects that are “Black” subjects. Though, I don’t want to diminish the primarily positive response I received, which is huge because the film concerns something that’s very rarely seen in French cinema and culture: that is, complex Black women who are also intellectuals. The US is more developed on this front. So, on the one hand, Saint Omer’s success is extraordinary, but it also points out there needs to be more. That it shouldn’t be an exception, because if it is, then there will always be critics who question similar stories along the lines I talked about. 

Scope: It’s as you said before about the universal, only these critics insist on seeing Black people who are far from their own experiences, unrelatable.   

Diop: Their critiques are extremely personal, too. It’s as if they were addressed directly to me, because supposedly I’m arrogant. It reminds me of a film by Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro (2016), and this interview we see from the ’60s in which James Baldwin is responding to a journalist and tells him, “I am not the Black person you want me to be.” This is all very fresh for me, and these are just my first impressions. You see, I’ve just finished a marathon press tour of two months because the film just came out in France. So, it’s been interesting to compare the discourse the film has elicited in France and abroad, and it’s been enlightening to see that papers like Le Figaro aren’t capable of reviewing the film on its own merits. I guess I’m dangerous because I don’t take care of children, because I’m not my mother who was a cleaning lady. Because I don’t represent the France they want to see. 

bl@cinema-scope.com Loayza Beatrice