Alice Diop is interested in reality, even if it's fictionalized. Born in France to Senegalese immigrants, the filmmaker earned acclaim with documentaries focused on life in Paris, particularly for Black immigrants, and the struggles with racism, violence, and identity. (Her most recent feature, Nous (We), won the Documentary Award at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival.) Now, Diop has translated those skills to fiction for her narrative debut, Saint Omer.
An evocation of the Greek tragedy of Medea, the drama follows a pregnant writer, Rama (Kayije Kagame), as she attends the trial of a Senegalese woman, Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), accused of murdering her 15-month old child. As the case unfolds, Rama finds herself becoming more anxious about her own impending motherhood. Diop took inspiration from a 2016 trial that she attended as an observer.
"In this case, fiction was the only way for me to tell this story," Diop says through an interpreter. "Even if I had made a documentary when it was happening, I don't think that would've been so interesting, because the documentary would've been conditioned by reality. I think fiction allows me to go much further into the question of maternity, which specifically appears through fiction in this film, and that I think is what is very important."
Saint Omer is France's official entry for Best International Feature at this year's 95th Academy Awards, making Diop the first Black woman ever chosen by France to represent the country at the Oscars. The film already won the Silver Lion and Luigi de Laurentiis Award for Best Debut Film at the Venice International Film Festival, validating Diop's belief that "there's no need for documentary and fiction to be kept in such separate genres,"
In a conversation with A.frame, Diop details what drew her to the real-life trial, the differences between documentary and narrative filmmaking, and why she refuses to dictate audience reactions to her films.
A.frame: You attended the trial of Fabienne Kabou that this film is based on. What made you feel so connected to the case, and how did you know it was something you wanted to dramatize?
What connected me to this case is so many things, so many that it's actually hard to give you a compact answer. The film explores so many different issues, and I made the choice not to have one take precedence over any other. The film deals with so many different subjects, but I think the determining thing for me was that when I went to see the trial in the courtroom, it was such an overwhelming, life-changing experience for me — one that really marked me for life, that led me to ask myself very deep, very personal questions relating to maternity. Seeing this woman who had committed the irreparable gave me a lot to think about regarding the darkest version of motherhood. It allowed me to see inside myself and to illuminate my own relationship to my mother and to my son, and that is what I wanted the film to be experienced as. I wanted all viewers, men and women, to live through this film in that same way, and for the film to allow them to ask themselves questions that related to the same subject inside themselves.
Laurence is not someone we're necessarily supposed to empathize with as an audience — obviously, what she did was terrible — but you do end up understanding her as the film goes on. What was your approach to writing her character?
I understand her because I listen to this woman — who has not had the opportunity to express herself — say who she is. To hear this Black woman, this complex woman, this woman who is unexpected in terms of the representations that there have been of her, to hear her speak of us. And when I say us, I mean in the most intimate sense and also in the collective sense. That is really what is at the core of the film. That is what is at stake with this film.
Now, I don't grasp what exactly each spectator is going to say to him or herself about it. Because each spectator is free to take distance from this woman, to understand her, to judge her. In a sense, that's the film's gray zone. But, in any case, to expose this woman through very long, 25-minute, single-shot scenes is to confront viewers and give them the opportunity to experience emotions, including contradictory emotions. Beyond that, what each viewer will think is something that I can't grasp and that I don't even want to grasp.
Rama and Laurence share one moment, where they look at one another and Laurence gives Rama a sort of small smile. How did you decide when to make that moment happen, and what did you want it to say?
That question is often asked of me and I always give the same answer: I absolutely refuse to say what I wanted to say, and it's for the reasons that I just spoke of. No one sees the same thing when they watch this film. Every single person goes through the film and experiences it in a different way, and no way is more right or better than any other. If I were to say why I did something or what something means, it would configure that moment. But there is no single truth in the film. There's no truth of the auteur or the director. What I say, or what I think, is not more important than what any viewer experiences or thinks. Now, in terms of the editing with that scene, I can say that it's a key scene in the film and that it's a kind of tipping point of Rama's experience of the trial, where we really only know what she's experiencing through what her body says. So for me, that scene is a tipping point, but each person has his or her own interpretation.
You shot the film chronologically. Why was it important that it be done that way?
I wanted to bring up non-fabricated emotions. I wanted to find ways to live the experience for the experience. So, the shoot was conceived as an experience that would be lived by the actors, the background actors, and even the crew. Doing things this way allowed the actors to experience the trial as it happened and to not fabricate emotions. Each closeup of Guslagie, in that closeup, around that closeup, she is surrounded by spectators who are listening to her for the first time as if they were at the trial. What all of this allowed was a documentary truth of emotion.
"There is no single truth in the film... What I say, or what I think, is not more important than what any viewer experiences or thinks."
Speaking of Guslagie, she delivers a compelling performance, despite standing in one spot the entire film. As a director, how did you work with her to create that performance?
The best way of working with Guslagie was to choose her, because there was something about her power, her intelligence, her depth, her mystery, her personal history that showed me she would play the character with every part of her being. I had never made a fiction film before, so I didn't have a method for directing actors. But what I realize now is that what interested me in the actors in Saint Omer was that I chose them for who they are and I didn't want them to fabricate emotions. There are films where actors fabricate emotion and that's great, but here, I was really playing on the porous line between who the person is and what they were playing. That's true as much for Guslagie as the actress who played Rama, the actress who played the judge, etcetera. The best way of working with Guslagie was choosing her and also of really thinking of a shooting method and a way of direction that allowed for her to work in a certain way. I always had a camera on her. She had to play very long scenes that allow for no artifice and ensure the intensity of the present. Those were my working methods with her.
When it comes to the character of Rama, there are parallels between her and yourself. Some see her as your stand-in within the movie. What sort of direction did you give to Kayije in building her character?
I don't think I conceived Rama as an extension of myself. Rama is a character that every woman can identify with, and that's really the dimension that we constructed her in. Rama is a very difficult character to play, because unlike the character that Guslagie has to play where there's a lot of text, Rama has practically nothing to say. She only has her body to express herself. That was very difficult for Kayije, and I think she really did a great job. The work with her was really focused on the body, because again, I didn't want any fake emotion. We worked with a French choreographer called Bintou Dembélé, and Bintou worked with Kayije on how to make the movements of her body and her gestures be readable. I also really asked her to inhabit the moment, to really listen and to have that intensity of listening and to try to feel and experience emotionally what it did to her, to listen to what she was listening to.
As a first-time narrative filmmaker, what did it mean to get recognized on the world stage when you won the Silver Lion in Venice?
It was an enormous honor and, of course, a great source of pride. With my previous film, I had had the honor of being in the Encounters competition at Berlin, and we had even won the Golden Bear for documentary there, which was extraordinary. But all of that took place virtually online, whereas at Venice for the first time, I had the honor of being in Official Competition, and on top of that, we won an award. All of which really served to make me feel that I was right to think that there's no need for documentary and fiction to be kept in such separate jaws. Because Saint Omer was recognized as a prolongation of my previous films and of the qualities of direction mise-en-scène that were at play in those previous films.