It is Alice Diop’s moment. When I mention the French filmmaker’s name in cinephile circles, there’s a widening of the eyes, followed by an assertion that she is going to be the next ‘big thing’. Cannes, Venice, and the Academy have all recognised her in their nominations, but before her first fictional release Saint Omer, Alice had completed a prolific body of documentary work on French society. Vers la tendresse, Nous, and On Call have long confirmed her intuition in understanding her subjects and articulating them to us. The recent excitement now comes from how successfully she has turned her eye onto scripted storytelling. Saint Omer depicts a French-African author Rama, who watches the court-case of a Senegalese woman named Laurence Coly—guilty of murdering her child. It is based on true events (the highly-publicised case of Fabienne Kabou) which Alice herself observed in French courts in 2016.
The difference here is that Kabou, and in turn, Laurence, was a subject that she still had unanswered questions for. Through Saint Omer, we sit in Rama’s (and again, in this case, Alice’s) place and face our ideas and prejudices as though living through the court case. It is a mysterious film, and also an important milestone in Alice’s career. As it continues to make an impression in time for Oscar season (this is France’s submission to the Academy, in an already strong year for French cinema), I spent some time speaking with Alice Diop about fictional feature number one: her acclaimed Saint Omer.
What was the hardest thing about the transition from documentary filmmaking?
It was to impose my way of doing things, the way of working that I had formulated with the previous work. I come from a world of documentary filmmaking that is concerned with formal research and formal experimentation, and in documentary film, because of lower financial stakes, you have the ability to do more of this searching and experimenting. Whereas in fiction, looking for the unexpected—the unpredictable seeking of ideas—is more expensive. So it was hard to put that kind of work into play with a crew. I think that was really the hardest thing. To work in the same way as before, but with a bigger crew that is formatted to produce fiction in a classic sense. I needed to find a way to have my needs as a filmmaker coincide with the habits required to make a fictional movie.
You actually visited the case that the film is based on in the town of Saint Omer. What were you looking for?
So many things that it is complicated for me to even describe, and I think that summarises the complexity of my film. If I have to give you an answer, I’ll say this: I was drawn by the woman’s sense of mystery. What drew me was not the small true-crime story aspect, but the almost mythological side. It was the opportunity to observe the question of maternity and this deep, psychological link we have to our mothers. There is also the performative investigation that I witnessed—of a Black woman in a white society, and they’re observing her in an interesting way. It was a film made to explore all these dimensions without emphasising one over the other.
Why did you choose not to make this a documentary?
I didn’t go as a filmmaker, but as a woman who is fascinated by this other woman. So, I had to go and experience the trial to then realise I wanted to make a film, and also why I wanted to make a film. Once the trial was over, it wasn’t possible to make a documentary anymore, and either way, the fiction form allows me to underline certain themes that interest me: questions of maternity and racial issues. Rama, as a fictional character, allows me to get at that.
There’s a scene where you show Rama watching Pasolini’s Medea. What was the decision behind this?
I have a hard time explaining specific scenes, because I want the film to be open to all interpretations. I also don’t want my interpretation to be more important than the audience. Now of course, regarding that scene, there’s also the idea of the narrative of Medea, and in terms of Laurence and her crime, the way she turns it into a narrative, I’m making the supposition that this intelligent, educated woman might spin the stories she has heard for the court. But it’s still just a supposition, because I want the audience to parse these things together in their own way.
You don’t like speaking about the meaning behind specific scenes.
I just don’t find it useful. The mise-en-scene was done in a way to give the viewer faith in their own interpretation—which I think is more important, more nourishing and interesting than my own intentions. There is a lot of intuition in Saint Omer. It’s very cerebral, it’s thought out on purpose, but it asks each person to explore their own relationship with what they watch unfold. I have more interest in what you saw, so please tell me…
I saw a horror movie. I saw Laurence put on display as an African woman in front of a judgmental white jury, and through Rama, I saw you sharing some of your own experiences, and perhaps empathies, as an African woman watching from the other side.
Frankly, I think that your interpretation is very interesting. I wanted to place the spectator in the same position as Rama, because I’m more curious about what the spectator experiences by watching Laurence on trial. It’s a living film. You won’t have the same experiences living through it whether you’re a man, a woman, white or black, in the United States or Romania. It was made so that viewers were able to have this experience—and this directs the mise-en-scene. I did this by having much longer shots that weren’t locked in, so that my focus wasn’t the main point. I want the film to call up new responses. The issue for me is not empathy for the characters, but the viewer’s experience.
I’ll just make it a little clearer because it’s actually very important for me to talk about this. I wanted to expose the complexity of this Black woman to all viewers of this film, and give them the opportunity to enter the private sphere of a woman who is rarely seen in cinema in this way. When I speak to Black women who have watched the film, they recognise something that they hadn’t seen, but needed to see. Other people see themes that they hadn’t had the opportunity to consider before. Ultimately, I think I’ve been trying to listen to many different people and collect all the different ways that Saint Omer is experienced by them—like a compendium.
Can I ask about the framing of Laurence in the courtroom—making her blend against the wall? This seemed like a really conscious and striking decision that stayed with me.
Everything is a conscious decision. It was a way to refer to the history of painting I think, by inscribing the presence of these [Black] bodies in a film—bodies that are lacking symbolic representation in both cinema and in art. It was a declaration both political and aesthetic and a way of thinking about their absence, and perhaps prompting the viewer to do the same.
Can you tell me about Guslagie Malanga, the actress who plays Laurence? She is so natural.
There were many reasons that convinced me to cast her. Her eyes, first of all. Then her mysterious nature, her high artistic standard, and also her personal intimate history resonated with the part. I won’t go further in explaining that. But I often say that the way I work with actors, because this was my first time, follows on from how I am as a documentary filmmaker. Which is to say, I only film people because they interest me for who they are. I want to portray their singularity. And there was no one else that could perform this role than Guslagie.
Now that you’ve made your first fictional film, will you continue with another or are you returning to the documentary format?
Both. I’ve been thinking about a new documentary just over the past couple of days, and there’s also a fictional story that I’ve been considering for two years. A journalist in France asked me a question about Saint Omer, and in my reply I realised that I was putting into words the statement for my next fiction film. That was great because I had the sense that in these subterranean ways, I could feel how my two films were connecting. The sense that I’m digging from one film to the next, and they all respond to the same necessity, but that as I keep going, I’m finding myself deeper into the same questions. Everything is connected.
I noticed the jingle of the French SNCF train-line in an opening scene. Trains feature across your work, you even have a minute-long short [RER] where someone paints the tracks. What is their significance to you as an artist?
This is something related to France, which is an extremely spatially segregated society. Where you grew up and where you live define the possibilities you have in life, as I explore in Nous. Now, I think that’s also probably true everywhere. But this idea of the movement from the periphery [as with impoverished French banlieue suburbs] to the centre by train, I think it’s at the heart of what I try to do with my films: I want to move marginalised spaces into the very centre.