After the Tide Went Out: Isabel Sandoval Interviews Saint Omer Writer/Director Alice Diop
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” is how the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein closes his early work The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, Laurence Coly (played by Guslagie Malanda) is a Senegalese immigrant to France on trial for the murder of her 15-month-old daughter, who she left on a beach to be washed out to sea by the outgoing tide. A student, Coly is writing her thesis on Wittgenstein, an academic detail she’s shamed for at the trial. (Why didn’t she write on the work of “someone closer to her own culture,” a professor wonders with racist dismissiveness.) Her crime is so shocking that it demands—in the courtroom (Diop’s picture is rigorously based on a real 2013 crime and its trial), as well as in the film—a psychological motivation, even as the meanings of infanticide and its surrounding mysteries have resisted satisfactory interpretation in dramas, true crime stories and mythologies for centuries.
Saint Omer excerpts two films. Near the beginning, there’s a clip from Alain Resnais’s film of Marguerite Duras’s screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour that speaks to, as filmmaker Isabel Sandoval summarizes in her interview with Diop below, the transformation of women’s shame into grace. The second clip is even more bracing: Maria Callas in Pasolini’s Medea, viewed with agony in her hotel room by Saint Omer’s protagonist, Rama, played with quiet, tremulous intensity by Kayije Kagame. At the original trial, whose dialogue Diop draws on for the film, Fabienne Kabou, who inspired the character of Coly, was asked, “Why did you kill your daughter?” She replied: “I don’t know. I hope this trial can help me understand.”
The insufficiency of language and the biases involved in interpretation, both judicial and dramatic, are dramatized with formal precision and, at times, impressive obdurateness in Diop’s astonishing feature. It’d be correct to dub Saint Omer the writer-director’s dramatic feature debut—she’s the director of several documentaries, including We (released in the United States earlier this year by MUBI), a portrait of lives connected by France’s RER-B, the commuter rail that passes through Aulnay-sous-Bois, the north Parisian suburb containing the Cité des 3000 housing project where Diop grew up. But, as Diop discusses below, she sees no difference between documentary and fiction. Indeed, in Saint Omer there’s a fluidity between recorded fact, authorial interpretation (Rama, a French-Senegalese writer who has come to town, pregnant, to observe the trial for a book she’s writing, is somewhat of a stand-in for Diop, and the Resnais/Duras clip offers one possible interpretive framework for the film that follows) and, despite the overall austerity, moments of pure expressiveness. (Impossible to achieve through judicial proceedings, catharsis of a sort arrives nondiegetically through Nina Simone’s rendition of “Little Girl Blue” on the soundtrack in the final moments.) The film’s courtroom scenes are masterworks of framing, as each of the trial’s three days subtly modulates points of view and the relationship of Coly to the audience as she watches Rama. In tracing the impact of the trial and its questions about the character, Diop also incorporates dreams and home movie flashbacks, the latter inspired by her own life, as Rama remembers her emotionally distant mother.
In the conversation below, conducted via Zoom and nimbly translated in real time by Nicholas Elliott, Sandoval—an actor, writer and director whose most recent feature is Lingua Franca and who appears in Elisabeth Subrin’s Cannes-premiering and New York Film Festival–selected short, Maria Schneider 1983—prompts Diop to speak directly about her desires for the film, her own relationship to the character of Rama and, particularly, how she worked with both actors and crew to incorporate filmmaking strategies productively honed from her earlier nonfiction work. Winner of the Silver Lion at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, and selected for the New York Film Festival, Saint Omer is out in January from NEON distribution label Super.—Scott Macaulay
Sandoval: I was watching We, your documentary from last year. In the sequence where you’re speaking with Pierre Bergounioux, the French writer, you spoke of his decision to confer literary existence to the lands of Corrèze, which, because it’s a poor place, had not until then appeared in literature. You told him, “When I heard that, my approach as a filmmaker suddenly became clear to myself. I realized I’d been making films about the suburbs in an obsessive way for the past 15 years, and part of that obsession is to provide a trace, to conserve the existence of ordinary lives.” Would you say that that essentially describes your own philosophy as a filmmaker and a chronicler?
Diop: There are things that you do intuitively, then one day you meet someone who articulates that thing to you and enlightens you about what you’ve been doing. Pierre Bergounioux illuminated what I had basically been doing for the nearly 15 years that I was a filmmaker, and what you’re saying about bringing to light or showing these existences that might otherwise disappear is really the same reason that I made Saint Omer. That’s why I’m interested in Laurence Coly: I’m not interested so much in the infanticide, in her as a criminal. I’m interested in seeing a woman who is never heard. To make a film in which this woman who is invisible-ized, silenced, in which this woman is put in the center of the frame and speaks for hours and hours, and we have to listen to her, that’s the reason for Saint Omer.
Sandoval: You put Laurence front and center, and she talks about herself, her perspective and her life, but it’s not in a way to simplify her, to explain herself. She remains complex, layered, an ambivalent woman. How do you strike a balance between having, essentially, a protagonist who, until now, has been invisible and unheard, without necessarily having her justify what she did or explain herself in order to become “sympathetic”?
Diop: Again, the reason I wanted to do this film is that I went to the real trial on which the film is based. The real woman is called Fabienne Kabou, and this person encountered my desire as a filmmaker to show and have people hear the [depth] of Black women in a way that is rarely shown in cinema, particularly in French cinema, and even in literature. There was an opportunity here to change received ideas, to renew people’s imagination and give them access to the deep complexity of Black women. That’s something that, as a filmmaker, really interested me.
Of course, I was faced and confronted with the mystery of this woman who herself is unable to say or understand what she did. The idea was not to claim to enlighten people about her mystery, but on the contrary, to work from that mystery. The mystery of this woman in the film functions in a way that sends the viewer to his or her dark places, into the complexity and unspeakable nature of his or her own connection to maternity. In a sense, that mystery of this woman is the real subject of the film, and the whole essence of my work was to approach it without diluting it. That is really what’s at the core of the film.
Sandoval: Having been at the trial of Fabienne Kabou, was there a particular moment that you decided to make a film based on her and, as a documentary filmmaker, to make that film a fiction film?
Diop: First of all, for me, there’s no difference between fiction and documentary. This is something that I say often, but I think that I will continue to say it. The most important thing for me in a film is the mise-en-scène, the direction and finding the best or the most accurate form for each film. In the case of Saint Omer, fiction imposed itself. I went to the trial with no idea of making a film of it. I had to go through the entire experience of the trial to understand that I wanted to make a film. And, because that was after the fact, it became impossible to do a documentary. Also, if I had made a documentary, I think I would’ve been stuck in the literal nature of the trial. I would’ve been reduced to the criminal aspect. Incidentally, there is a very literal aspect to the film, which is that everything you hear in the trial is drawn verbatim from the transcripts. But fiction allows us to make this material heard in a way that really focuses us on the essential issues at stake. So, it’s the character of Rama who is fictional, who reveals to the viewer these essential issues, which have to do with motherhood. I think that without Rama, I would’ve had a great deal of difficulty delivering this disturbing material to the viewer, and I think I might’ve gotten into something obscene and voyeuristic.
Sandoval: I’m curious about the character of Rama because I read her as essentially a surrogate for the author. How personal or autobiographical is the fictional character of Rama in Saint Omer?
Diop: It’s strange, because I want to say that Rama is both not at all autobiographical and totally autobiographical. I haven’t found the right answer for this question because often I say no, but then I say to myself, “Come on, you really can’t say that.” There’s an essence in the character of something that I experienced, but that’s really only interesting to me, that I then built fictionally so that [the character] can welcome all French Black women whom I know personally and who also have this very complex, tortured relationship to motherhood, and specifically to their own mothers, who were molded by the violence of exile. But then, this is also a character [who] welcomes all the women in the world who are grappling with their own mothers and their own motherhood. So, it’s like this nested Russian doll with three layers—myself, the French Black women that I know and all the women in the world.
Sandoval: The cast is a combination of professional and nonprofessional actors. Can you tell us how you went about casting Rama and Laurence Coly?
Diop: They are professional actresses, actually. Kayije Kagame, who plays Rama, is a theater actress. She had never been in film before, whereas Guslagie Malanda, who plays Laurence, had only been in one film, a Jean-Paul Civeyrac film eight years ago. But she hadn’t acted since because she considered the roles that were offered to her as a Black actress in France not interesting enough. So, the fact that she didn’t shoot for eight years is something of a political statement in and of itself.
Now I can say that I chose these actresses for who they are, which goes to show that my documentary self didn’t end when I came to make Saint Omer. I chose them for the way that their private lives are in dialogue with what I wrote, and with how they can modify what I wrote. I never stopped asking them throughout the process to be themselves, including in the case of Guslagie playing Laurence, where I could tell that playing the part was confronting her with something painful and intimate about herself. And that’s what makes her performance breathtaking. She’s not acting, she’s being. She’s truly inhabited by the character, and she’s doing that by going into these deep, personal wounds she has [in order] to understand this woman and embody her. It was truly not an academic process. I never asked them to fabricate something. I asked them to intensely be themselves.
Sandoval: Since Laurence is based on Fabienne, and Rama is a fictional character, how did you shape that character with Kayije, and what was the directing like with her, especially for that character?
Diop: The role of Kayije was very complicated because [during the trial] she has no lines. So, everything that she experiences, that she goes through, has to be said through her way of working with her body, and that was very hard. Now, obviously, the role of Laurence that Guslagie plays is complicated, but she has this huge documentary text to lean on, whereas Kayije is playing bare or raw. She has to get across all this psyche, this fear, everything that’s happening to her, without words. A very great French choreographer who’s a friend of mine, Bintou Dembélé, a Black woman, worked with Kayije on how to use her body because Rama is a very physical role, but its demands are not so much technical but to express something with the body while letting herself be filled with an emotion that is also visible.
Sandoval: I’m curious about the emotional process of making the film since you had experienced and witnessed Fabienne Kabou’s trial several years earlier. Did it dredge up emotions, feelings and thoughts that you had experienced during the trial? And how have they evolved in the years since?
Diop: The trial shook me up enormously, and I could say that it allowed me to solve, to console, to understand very deep things about myself. It really allowed me to take stock of my relationship with my mother and my son. But I must also say that I protected myself during the trial by frenetically taking notes, which is why I was able to have the [dialogue] verbatim in the film. So, that activity that [allowed me to make] the film protected me from having a direct relationship with the emotion that was being provoked by what I was hearing.
The same thing happened to some degree when I was writing the screenplay. When you write a screenplay, it’s such a technical activity that you have great distance from the feeling. However, on the first day of shooting, when the actresses appeared, I was surprised to find myself overwhelmed by emotion. It was as if the dikes had opened and everything that I had repressed had come out all at once. Throughout the shoot, I was constantly confronted with this emotion that had been repressed, and I realized that perhaps the only way for me to direct this film was in a state of trance, the same trance that the actresses were in. And maybe it’s because I was in that trance that they took that step of not protecting themselves, of giving me everything. It was like I shared the emotion with them that came up for me after having been silenced all these years of working on the film.
Sandoval: You mentioned that there’s not much difference for you between fiction and documentary, but now having made a fiction feature, what do you find are the practical and logistical differences between making a documentary and a fiction? In particular, I’m curious about writing the screenplay because I saw that you had a co-writer.
Diop: It’s funny. This wasn’t such a significant thing in the writing, this difference between documentary and fiction. It was much more of an issue on set. All of my films, whether documentary or fiction, are very written. They’re very thought through, but like free jazz: You have to know your scales in order to be able to let go and to move towards the unexpected. So, I needed to have a set for Saint Omer where we could welcome the unexpected, where I could continue to write, but that was a very hard thing to do while shooting a fiction [film] with a crew that is not used to that kind of work. So, I really had to give myself the space to do that, and I had to confront people who have a nearly bureaucratic understanding of how fiction is made in France. I had to give myself the freedom to change my mind, which is enormously expensive when you’re making a fiction film. I had to give myself the freedom to think, to doubt, which is also enormously expensive. But those things are all at the essence of my practice of filmmaking, and I did not want them to change. That’s a very difficult thing to do when you’re working with a crew of 40. When I work on my documentaries, I have a crew of three. I think that I imposed that, and it was a very violent and difficult process, but I was able to protect that space. It did cost me physically. But to answer your question, this difference between documentary and fiction was much more of an issue on the shoot than in the script writing.
Sandoval: Having made Saint Omer and having made those realizations about what it’s like making a fiction feature, what do you think you would change when you make your next fiction feature, if you already are thinking of that project?
Diop: Ultimately, the crew that I worked with on Saint Omer, I think they finally understood what I was after and supported me in this process. Notably, the director of photography, Claire Mathon understood—first, and perhaps better than anyone—my working method because she had worked on documentaries. The next film will be very different, I think. I think it will probably be easier because I will know that I will always be confronted with the unpredictable, the unexpected, what I can’t know ahead of time. And I think I’ll be more accepting of that: knowing my own doubts, welcoming what I don’t know, welcoming that I’m going to look for something on set. I think that I’ll feel more supported and more surrounded because I think I’m going to work with the same people on the next film.
Sandoval: I’m curious about the opening of Saint Omer, where Rama speaks about the writing of Marguerite Duras, about transforming the state of shame conferred upon the shaven-headed collaborator women of the war into a state of grace. How else had Duras influenced you as a thinker and as a filmmaker?
Diop: The presence of Marguerite Duras in the film has several functions and meanings. Perhaps the simplest one is that it allows us to imagine what kind of writer Rama might be based on the class that she’s giving. We know that if she’s interested in a woman who committed infanticide, that links her to Duras and Duras’s interest in the taboo and an approach to the theme of femininity in its most unspeakable, complex realms. The film starts with Duras’s words, and in a sense that’s the explanation of what the film is aiming for and what the film is going to do. Duras’s words contaminate the film, and they show us both what type of writer Rama is and also what interests me as a filmmaker. It says as much about me as about the film, as about the character of Rama.
Sandoval: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Alice.
Diop: I just wanted to thank you for your films and for your presence. I was delighted when I learned we were going to have this conversation. I like your films so much, and I’m so happy to speak to you.