[The following story contains spoilers from Saint Omer.]
Acclaimed French documentarian Alice Diop makes a strong transition to the narrative feature with Saint Omer, her first fictional film, premiering this week in the Venice Film Festival’s main competition.
The film follows Rama (Kayije Kagame), a pregnant young novelist who attends the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a Senegalese woman accused of murdering her 15-month-old baby by leaving her on a beach to be swept away by the tide. Rama arrives in the northern French town of Saint Omer, where the trial will be held, with the intention of turning the tragic event into a literary retelling of Medea, but as she learns more about Coly’s life, she becomes increasingly anxious about her own memories and pregnancy.
Like her protagonist, Diop, also the daughter of Senegalese immigrants, traveled to attend a real-life trial of a Senegalese woman charged in 2013 in a similar case of infanticide. Diop’s personal preoccupation with the case eventually provided the raw material her first narrative screenplay, co-written with acclaimed author Marie NDiaye (also the co-writer of Claire Denis 2009 feature White Material).
For the past decade, Diop has won a string of honors, including the Berlin Film Festival’s best documentary award for Nous just last year, by turning her camera on the injustices and intimate stories of immigrant communities on the peripheries of Paris, a program she has described as a political act of re-centering.
Ahead of Venice, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Diop about the origins and intentions of her finely wrought fictional debut.
I understand the film is loosely based on your personal observation of a real-life trial, much like Rama, your protagonist. What captivated you about the case and how did that experience transform into a creative project that you would put to your own aesthetic and political ends?
It’s true that when I first heard about this story, I was absolutely captivated and fascinated by what happened in the real case. This woman who put down her baby daughter on a beach at high tide with the moon shining above her — there was a really lyrical element even in the way that journalists described this event that made it bigger than just a little news story. And there was something about it that was on the order of Greek tragedy and mythology and I think that’s why it fascinated me, and I think that’s what drove me to go and be present at the trial of this woman, without even knowing whether it would lead to a film. But my experience there convinced me that there was a film to be made. The case was given a tremendous amount of media attention in France. And it was a case that really spoke to all kinds of women — white women, black women — all women found it very important. And the women that I met, during my five days at the trial, all brought a tremendous amount of personal investment in trying to understand the mystery of the woman who was accused, and that I think points to a universal and timeless quality. I felt that this was a story that would allow me to make a film that talks about women and motherhood and about the invisibility of black women. In fact, all my projects, all the themes that I work on, were kind of brought together in the story of this one woman.
The complexity of Laurence Coly’s story and her motivation seem to be left unresolved in a very intentional way. What did come through for me, unambiguously, by the end of the film, was a strange mix of her pain and her strength. At the same time, we’re shown through the various perspectives of the people around her how they’ve tried to simplify her story, perhaps in ways that comport with their own prejudices, or out of their own need for a simple version of her story. How were these creative decisions shaped by your experience of the real trial and what were you trying to express with them?
It’s very interesting what you say, because indeed my personal experience of the trial was as someone who had never witnessed a trial before and we’d never been to court before. I saw this woman who was accused, being forced to answer all these questions. And she was lining up all these objective facts that cumulatively resulted in, or showed, the impossibility of understanding the human soul, especially in the case of a woman who’s killed her child. There’s one sentence that I heard there, in particular, that was extremely important. That was at the beginning of the trial, the judge asked her, “Why did you kill your daughter?” And she answered, “I don’t know. I hope this trial will show me the answer to that question.” I think that sentence was really pivotal to all my choices in terms of my direction and guiding me in the mise-en-scene.
What is the ritual of justice that takes place at a trial, if not this belief in restoring objective truth, which incidentally doesn’t exist; there is no truth. So what fascinated me is this ritual of justice of the court trying to reveal the truth of a person who will ultimately always be a mystery. We are a mystery to ourselves. So, the truth of a person is always composed of projections that we have — and that’s especially true in the case of a black woman, where these projections are violent. And that is what I was trying to translate in the film.
The mystery of Laurence Coly in the film is a mystery that existed for me and it exists for the audience. The impossibility of understanding her, especially as someone who has killed her child, it forces us to look at our own buried place. And that’s where the character of Rama is very important as an avatar, or point of view for the audience. And that’s how the film really becomes universal. And that’s what I was trying to work towards with my direction.
I’ll also just add that the question of the film that we experience through Rama is the question of maternity. It forces us all — through this woman — to try to understand our own relationship to our mothers. One of the key issues of the film is the question, “What is it to be a mother?”
That move from the particular to the universal was what I personally found most amazing about the film. Because for a large portion of the film, I was really compelled by Rama’s perspective on the trial and the interesting similarities and differences she shares with Laurence Coly as two Senegalese women in French society. But then, by the end, it suddenly broadens, and you see that the other, diverse collection of women present at the trial, are also being profoundly affected by the proceedings. And then I found myself — despite the fact that I’m an American who happens to live in Japan, worlds away from Laurence Coly’s experience — thinking deeply about my own wife and daughter, and my wife’s relationship with her mother, and my own relationship with my mother. How did you achieve this telescoping from the particular to the universal in this way?
That’s a question I love, and that’s one of the most beautiful compliments that one could give me about the film — that a white man so far away would be touched by the universal aspect is just wonderful. And that’s really the key question. It’s something that I’ve been trying to get at with every film that I make, which is that the black body can carry the universal. We do have a very certain, specific experience expressed by black women such as myself, who are raised in France by immigrant women and all the violence that French society can have on our bodies. And it’s something that’s not said through words in the film, it’s a sense story that we see through Rama remembering her childhood. But the goal is that by the end of the film, it will somehow bring each person, each viewer, to think of his or her mother, his or her children, and so on. And that’s really the objective, or the gift, of the film. And it’s in that sense that the film is political for me. — its political in that it recognizes the universality of the black body.
At the beginning of the film, Rama gives a brief lecture on Marguerite Duras and scenes from Hiroshima Mon Amour are shown, and it sort of felt to me that her read on the film and her comments about how to interpret it were functioning as a framing device that sort of acts as an instruction manual for how to interpret the film that then follows.
Yes, absolutely. You know, we have very few elements in the film about who Rama is; she’s a rather silent character, and there are only a few precise signs of who she is. So this beginning, in a sense, gives us the perspective that she has, what her gaze is going to be, and how she’s going to look at Laurence. I mean, this is a woman, Rama, she’s a Marguerite Duras scholar. She’s interested in the taboo, the unspeakable violence that is committed on the bodies of women. And since she’s a novelist, that’s what we can imagine is going to interest her in the character of Laurence Coly. There’s also a question there, and it’s one that for me as a director is not resolved in the film. It’s the question of how we judge women — in all of time, going back to the beginning, we have judged women and the crimes of women. And that’s something that kind of corrupts the entire film and runs through it.
There’s one other specific moment that I’d like to ask you about. It’s the one time in the film were Rama and Laurence directly interact — the brief moment when they make eye contact in the courtroom, and Laurence gives her a little smile, which seems to disturb Rama quite a lot. How should we interpret that moment?
Well, I refuse to answer that question. I tried so hard with this film to work on sensations that really show what Rama is going through but in a non-narrative way. And so this pivotal scene of their exchange of gazes, I know what it means, but I don’t think I could say what it is. I don’t even think it would work if I said what it is. This moment is where her whole story resolves. And so there’s not one answer. And I think what interests me more than trying to explain what she’s experiencing in that moment is to hear what each individual viewer experiences and goes through in witnessing that moment.
Well, I find it a very enigmatic, complicated moment. It gave me a profound sense of mystery.
Maybe the only thing I can say to kind of raise the veil on this enigma is that it’s the moment where Rama detaches herself. It’s the only moment where she understands that she must live her own life. It’s the moment where the obsession ends, where she understands that this thing of trying to understand her own life through getting into the head of someone else doesn’t work. It’s the moment where the projection comes to an abrupt end. That’s the only thing I can say. And I can only say it now because I just understood it. Interesting; you forced me to verbalize it.
Did you have that moment yourself when you were in the courtroom?
A little, yes. Not with the same kind of gaze, and not in such a literal way. But yes, at a certain point I had to stop this this danger of identification. Luckily, you know, Laurence Coly is not me at all. You know, I have a 13-year-old-son and he’s doing very well. In fact, he just walked by. So thankfully, you know, that’s something that hasn’t been my issue. But there was a moment where the fascination ended. And I think that’s when I decided that I was going to write the film. It’s as if I went really far — and then I had to come back to myself to work on all of that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.