Alice Diop on the Many Dimensions of “Saint Omer”

Alice Diop was drawn to attending the trial of Fabienne Kabou without thinking that it would be a movie, though with years of documentary experience, it can sometimes happen inevitably. Instead, she found herself in the gallery of Kabou’s weeklong trial in Saint Omer due to personal curiosity about a woman with a background not entirely unlike her own, the well-educated daughter of Senegalese parents, who never disputed her role in the death of her 15-month-old daughter, who drowned after being left at a beach, only that she it was a mystery even to herself why she behaved the way she did. The director was puzzled by her own interest  while she was looking forward to the birth of her own child, yet as she looked around the courtroom, she felt less alone in seeing other spectators that clearly weren’t attracted by the lurid details of the case, but rather the sense that what they were witnessing was one tragedy revealing another as it connected the women in the room not only to one another, but to the generations that had come before them that were expected to sacrifice so much of themselves in the name of assimilation, whether culturally or in a patriarchal society.

“Saint Omer,” Diop’s first official dramatic feature, takes roughly 90% of its dialogue in the court directly from the trial transcripts, which proves to be less impressive as a creative challenge in its commitment to authenticity than the attitudes that it exposes so clearly as Kabou, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, is reflected in the fictional character of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a stoic young woman who rarely shows emotion as she’s tried for an unthinkable crime. Her own testimony is gripping, but Diop is equally interested in how the room is already stacked against her, thought incapable by a former professor of being interested in the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein as a woman from Dakar and shown no mercy by anyone but her defense attorney when she’s at a loss for words about the night of her child’s death. Sympathy comes in the form of Rama (Kayije Kagame), the novelist who the film follows to the trial as a quiet observer and though it would be easy to ascribe her as a surrogate specifically for Diop, the film marvelously makes no such distinction as anyone can come to see what she does in proceedings where a far larger crime than the one in question is being interrogated.

Working with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Atlantics” cinematographer Clare Mathon, Diop extends a deep gaze into the soul of her characters that supersedes the ingrained image of how their cinematic predecessors and the situation they’re in have been seen for ages, feeling as if the reach of “Saint Omer” into history is as great as how much it feels of the future in its invigorating narrative tactics. Able to transport audiences into the entirety of lives of those before the camera without leaving its physical trappings, the film resists inspiring any temptation to consider the meticulous work that went into it, yet was the product of a rigorous three-year effort to first extract what was critical about the trial to adapt to the screen and subsequently locate the ineffable truths that “Saint Omer” expresses in such a groundbreaking way. With the film now shortlisted for a Best Foreign Language Oscar after being tapped as France’s official section and arriving in the U.S. after flooring audiences this past fall at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, Diop, with the assistance of a translator, graciously took the time to talk about the attention to detail that went into the production, from the art in other mediums that were inspirations to how her own work in nonfiction helped her create such a drama that deepens with every viewing.

After seeing “Saint Omer,” I was struck that you may have been making it at the same time as your previous film “Nous,” which considers the universal experience in a sprawling way by moving across Paris and while this is set largely in a courtroom, you get the universality by looking at others in the gallery. Was it interesting achieving a similar effect through entirely different approaches?

It’s true. I made my films exactly at the same time, but in fact, I wrote “Saint Omer” with my editor, who is my editor for all my previous films and there are some similarities between the two films but I wasn’t conscious of that at the time when I was writing. What is so strange is I’m actually way more moved by the family scene in “Saint Omer” that is recreated [in fiction] than the actual documentary scene [of a family in “Nous”]. But at the same time when I looked at both films, the the family archive in “Nous” where the mother is not there, and then looked at “Saint Omer,” I am of course aware that I’m trying to process this absence of the mother and when I staged [the scene] in “Saint Omer,” the mother of Rama, I brought her in the script, and sometimes the image that makes for me is a form of reparation of reality.

It seems like there must be an interesting dynamic in the writing process when it’s not only you and your editor Amrita David, but also Marie N’Diaye, who’s an author. Those are different ways of coming at storytelling – what’s it like to get the three of you together?

I did not want to approach the screenwriting from a conventional way. For me, each of my films creates its own language, whether it’s a documentary or fiction. When I started to write “Saint Omer,” I immediately felt I had to ask Marie N’Diaye to come in, who is one of the most important French writers and I felt [Fabienne] Kabou could’ve been one of the heroines of this writer. And I was correct because actually [Marie] was totally fascinated by the story of Kabou and had not done a novel about it, but later wrote a book that was very inspired by that story. And my editor is not a writer, but the three of us collaborate, bringing together how this story was moving deeply inside and we put our personal feelings together. It is the result of all our discussions and exchanges that by and by start to form scenes and dialogues.

Is it true that casting for your leads was not all that different from how you’d look for documentary subjects?

Yes, I approached the casting very much the way I’d approach the casting for my documentary, in which I’m looking for people that are who they are. For example, in. “Nous,” I filmed Ismael [Soumaïla Sissoko], my own immigrant mechanic, not because he was an immigrant but because I made a connection with him as the person that he was and when I looked for the actresses of “Saint Omer,” I didn’t look for them thinking they are going to be able to act the character, but I saw within them that they had a rapport with the story – who they were was what I needed to tell that story.

The performances alone grab your attention, but the mise-en-scene is so lively. What went into getting such depth in the frame with your cinematographer Clare Mathon?

What was important with Clare from our first research was Renaissance paintings. For us, it seems very political to bring these images of the Renaissance in order to portray these Black women as a way to reflect on the representation and the lack of the Black body in cinema and in painting. For example, the main frame for Laurence was inspired by the Leonardo DaVinci painting “La Belle Ferroniere,” and from that reference, we deducted all of the choices of color, of direction, of lights and extended it to the look of the film.

It was so magnificent and with the long takes, I imagine you were you were locked into a certain rhythm as far as editing the film, but given how effective the reactions are at times as well as the flashbacks, was there room to decide how long to hold on certain shots?

That’s really hard to nail down because it is so gut-driven. It is not something we wrote down because this film is so based on the veracity of the emotion. We worked so hard to bring a complete truth and authenticity to what we were filming and what directed the editing was to try and preserve that without damaging it, so it is so based on the feeling of the moment that I couldn’t go back to that moment to try to explain it.

The flashbacks were written. [Because] we know nothing about the character of Rama and her character is very silent, the only idea we get of her reaction to what she listens to is in the flashbacks, so those flashbacks are hints that we drop to give us information of what she might feel as she’s listening to the defendant and that was written right from the start.

The music is also judiciously placed, with this wonderful sound of breathing, and I understand it was Thomas de Pourquery, who plays Rama’s partner Adrien in the film, who led you to listen to Caroline Shaw. How did you spark to it?

When I wrote the script, I was completely [taken with] this fascinating piece of Philip Glass, “Einstein on the Beach,” and when I was introduced to the music of Caroline Shaw, it spoke of the interiority of the character of Rama. One other element of the film is this dimension of Greek mythology and theater and this music of Caroline was bringing that dimension with this chorus of female voices, so there was a combining this evocation of Greek tragedy and also the interiority and the organic feelings that we wanted to convey that Rama was going through.

“Saint Omer” will open on January 13th in New York at Film at Lincoln Center and Film Forum.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.