Interview: Alice Diop on Saint Omer
This article appeared in the October 7, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Read more of our coverage of the 60th New York Film Festival here.
Saint Omer (Alice Diop, 2022) © Laurent Le Crabe
With her recent documentary We, an observational tour of Paris that dwells in its so-called margins—the banlieues, home to many Black and brown immigrants—rather than its center, filmmaker Alice Diop crafts an anti-portrait of a nation: a collective image that emerges not from self-evident similarities but from solidarities constructed across lines of difference. Saint Omer, Diop’s already-laureled fiction debut, which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival last month, mounts yet another cinematic challenge to portraiture, interrogating the powers of both the language of the state and the camera to reveal our true selves to one another.
At the center of this film are two Black women: Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a young Senegalese immigrant accused of killing her 15-month-old child by leaving her to drown in the ocean; and Rama (Kayije Kagame), a Senegalese-French professor and writer working on a project about the Medea myth. The former is drawn from a real-life news story that shook France in 2016; the latter character is based on the filmmaker herself, who, captivated by the case, attended the trial that followed. Using actual transcripts from the hearings, Diop reconstructs the mise en scène of the courtroom with formal precision, but gives this space of purported objectivity the defiantly subjective point of view of a Black woman—i.e., Rama.
In Gayatri Spivak’s 1988 text, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” the scholar questions whether a subaltern woman of the past can be given voice by historians of the present without becoming a collage of their own projections. I’ve rarely seen these questions unfurl onscreen with as much dramatic and intellectual force as in Saint Omer. Brought to life in a mesmerizing performance by Malanda, Laurence is the cipher at the heart of this film, a figure so impenetrable that we do not know whether to sympathize with her or condemn her. As we watch the trial unfold in tense long takes, Laurence’s interrogation reveals less and less about her, and more and more about all that we bring to bear on mothers in general and Black women in particular. It’s in that impasse that the strength of Saint Omer lies—in its implicit testament to our “right to opacity,” in the terms of Édouard Glissant, which demands that we find ways to relate to each other outside of the reductive fiction of understanding each other.
After the film’s screening at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with Diop to talk about her experience of attending the trial that inspired Saint Omer, how nonfiction and fiction mingled in the film’s making, and what it means to invest universality in the figure of a Black woman.
Saint Omer screens October 9 at the 60th New York Film Festival.
I wanted to start by asking about the Marguerite Duras reference in the opening of the film. Why did you decide to open with that?
There were a couple of reasons. For me, starting the film with a Black woman who is reading Hiroshima mon amour in a classroom at the Sorbonne, perhaps, or Sciences Po—a prestigious French university—there was something political about that. I wanted to pose the question of the universality of a Black woman, and right from the start, the film speaks to the widespread projections people have on Black women.
The choice of text also gives us clues about what kind of writer Rama is and what interests her about Laurence Coly. Her course insists on the necessity for Duras as a writer—and for Rama as a writer—to examine the taboos of female characters who have committed acts that are reprehensible, but with the ambition to make them into heroines to be heard and truly listened to, if not absolved. The way the film looks at Laurence Coly is precisely what Duras does with her fraught women, who are victims and at the same time guilty. Rama’s lecture contaminates the whole film; it provides an axis for how we view it.
In the press notes you say that you went to the trial thinking you would relate to this woman because you’re Senegalese and also have a mixed-race child, but when you went there she almost seemed like a psychopath to you. How did your idea of the film change once you went to the courtroom?
I was obsessed by the story and almost drawn to it like a magnet, but I didn’t have the idea to make a film. But when I went to the trial, I was confronted with the reality of this woman—the way she was, the way she spoke, the complexity of her story, the impossibility for me of understanding her act—and I didn’t have any more clarity at the end of the trial. And this mystery that remained forced me, I have to say, to go into my own hidden depths and to look inside myself at things I didn’t necessarily want to see or acknowledge. It was very upsetting.
And what I experienced was experienced by all the women who were present there as spectators. There were women who, like me, had come for no reason, and also female journalists, lawyers, the presiding judge, the judge’s two assessors. All those women were shaken. That’s when I realized what was at stake. It was in this awareness of the universal character of the questions raised by the trial that I became convinced that I had a film on my hands.
We think of universality as this idea that there’s something common among all of us, and that we can all relate to each other. But what both We and Saint Omer showed me is that we’re all opaque to each other, and that is what is universal. We start watching the trial thinking, “I hope I can understand what made this woman do this unimaginable thing,” but what I felt you did was to defend her right not to be understood.
It’s funny because from an American perspective, the question of universality that can be embodied in a Black body is completely outdated. But in France we’re still not accustomed to seeing Black women other than as the object of projections, the object of fantasies that continue to transmit a racist way of thinking. Whenever there’s a Black character in a film, the screenplay always has to justify them. Either it’s a question of migration or it’s a social issue. But here, it’s simply a question of maternity that concerns every woman in the world. The political aspect of my film lies precisely in the fact that a Black body—and Black women in particular—can be universal.
I think that even today no one understands this woman. The huge pleasure that I had, although the film was extremely hard to write and shoot, was to write the story of such a complex Black woman, whom I’ve rarely encountered in cinema or literature. We don’t know if we should feel empathy for her or be wary of her, if she’s a liar or a manipulator. She summons up the great tragic figures.
To come back to what you were saying, the exact words she said at the trial when the judge asked her, “Madame Coly, why did you kill your daughter?” were: “I don’t know. I hope this trial can help me understand.” Her answer is incredible. She has a right to her mystery. And because she is mysterious, because she is complex, she engages our common humanity.
For me, the most interesting point is when the question of sorcery comes up. You construct a puzzle for us: we don’t know if Laurence actually believes in sorcery or if this idea was fed to her by a racist policeman and she’s manipulating us. What we realize is that we know nothing about this Black woman; all we know is the way other people talk about her.
My profound belief is that she’s a Black woman who’s doing her PhD on [Ludwig] Wittgenstein, one of the philosophers of the 20th century who is the most difficult to understand—even Lévi-Strauss didn’t manage to understand Wittgenstein. An intellectual of that caliber couldn’t reduce what she did to a simple act of witchcraft. But the story became all about witchcraft, witchcraft, witchcraft… the journalists projected all their racism on this woman.
At the same time, she said that a spell had been put on her, but only after the investigating judge had more or less served this defense strategy on a platter to her. She grabbed hold of it. A woman who kills her child like that… It’s absolutely incomprehensible. So she, too, needed to construct an explanation. She turned to colonial fantasies to find the answer for herself.
Saint Omer is fiction, but it is about the truth, and the courtroom is the arena where we think we’re going to find the truth. Did recreating that space and staging this pursuit of truth make you think differently about documentary as a practice?
I was very aware while making the film that I was shooting a fiction. But I believe that there is no difference between fiction and documentary, or at least the documentary cinema that I love. This film is a prolongation of the work that I began with We and my other films. And it’s as a documentary filmmaker that I did the mise en scène, in that I directed it with an absolute faith in the power of reality. Even in the casting, I started with the possible resonances that I felt between the lines the actors would say and who they were in real life as women. That interested me more than to ask them to interpret someone who was very far from who they were. There was a form of documentary truth in asking all the actors to base their work on real emotions rather than trying to create fictitious ones.
Was Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami on your mind while making Saint Omer? In that film, there’s a battle between what we can learn from the gaze and what we can learn from language, and both modes of inquiry hit their limits. I got that same sense while watching Saint Omer.
For me it’s one of the most important films in the history of cinema, but it’s true that, surprisingly, I didn’t have it in mind while I was shooting. I was more imprinted by the films of Bresson, like The Trial of Joan of Arc, or the Israeli film Gett, that, as chamber pieces, question all the possibilities of a society in a single room, at a trial where you are being judged.
I’m also an absolute fan of the films of Frederick Wiseman. The first film of his that I saw when I was a student was Public Housing, and I knew that I had to become a documentarian. When I was casting my actresses, I showed them a scene from Welfare, the story of Valerie Johnson. It’s a long, 40-minute scene showing a Black woman trying to get her documents for housing assistance. I showed this shot to my actresses for the truth in the face of this woman. I think that Wiseman had an influence on the length of the shots in Saint Omer, my confidence in the sequence shot, and the rigor of the execution. Those long, 20-minute takes give an intensity to what is seen and heard, and allow spectators the opportunity to change their minds, to move from one idea to another, to move from one life to another. I think the film demands a lot from the viewer because I offer them the possibility to form their own opinion.
I noticed in my screening that in the flashback sequences featuring Rama’s mother, the Wolof dialogue is not subtitled. Was that intentional?
Yes, absolutely. I didn’t want to have translations for the Wolof dialogue, because I don’t speak Wolof. My parents spoke it to each other, but a teacher said to my mother when she arrived in France that she shouldn’t speak to me in Wolof.
Like Laurence’s teacher says to her parents!
Exactly. And it was important because Rama, too, is Senegalese, and not speaking the same language as her mother creates distance between them. It’s an excellent question; no one has ever raised it. The decision was made after long discussions with distributors who absolutely wanted me to subtitle it. And I said no, because the film is from Rama’s point of view. Your question confirms my choice.
The home videos we see of Rama’s childhood reminded me of your home videos in We. Did you base them on your own videos?
Absolutely. Each time I see those sequences, they move me so deeply. It’s not entirely my story, but it’s not that far from my story either. My mother died when I was 17, so I didn’t have exactly the same story as Rama, but each time I see those images I sob and sob. It’s as if I have recreated something that didn’t happen to me in real life.
It’s fascinating how it’s a little bit of your story, a little bit of Laurence’s story, a little bit of Rama’s story.
A Matryoshka doll.
Yes! I also wanted to ask about that scene where Rama looks at Laurence, and Laurence turns and smiles. It’s completely unexpected and surprising. You don’t know whether Rama is imagining it, or if Laurence is really smiling. How did you direct the actors in that moment?
It’s funny, because technically the scene wasn’t hard to shoot, but emotionally it was very hard on the actress who plays Laurence, Guslagie Malanda. She didn’t want to look at Rama.
I don’t think she herself knows why. She didn’t want to smile, she didn’t want to look at Rama. She wanted me to stand in Rama’s place. It brought up such personal and private emotions for both the actresses. The majority of the crew were women, and while we were shooting, it was as if we were in this collective psychodrama. After every scene we’d cry about our own lives. Technically, I couldn’t tell you how we did it, because their performances aren’t technical. I created a space for the actresses where they could summon forth their own personal ghosts safely and send them back to the attic when the film was finished.
Special thanks to Robert Gray, Madeline Whittle, and Nicholas Elliott for their assistance with French-English translation.
Devika Girish is the Co-Deputy Editor of Film Comment.