SAINT OMER: Director Alice Diop and Actress Guslagie Malanda on Their Pursuit of Authenticity (Interview)

Based on the real-life 2016 accounts of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese woman who murdered her 15-month-old daughter in the Berck municipality in northern France, Alice Diop’s narrative feature debut, “Saint Omer,” has drawn near-universal praise since its 2022 Venice debut. Shortlisted by the American Academy as France’s submission to the Best International Film Oscar competition, Diop’s ability to engender empathy for a young woman who commits the unthinkable, is worthy of further examination.

Anchored by Guslagie Malanda’s convincing performance as Laurence Coly, a fictionalization of Kabou, the film’s success is also the result of Diop’s deft merging of documentary and fiction storytelling practices in tackling universal themes. To deconstruct its achievement, Akoroko sat down with Diop and Malanda in a conversation about their collaboration, creating a work that is both true to the story that inspired it, while shifting the perspective from which it’s generally understood.

Diop’s use of a hybrid technique to recount the occurrence of infanticide was a direct response to her desire to avoid a literal interpretation while preserving the integrity of Kabou’s story. In addition to using the original court documents to develop Laurence Coly’s script (keeping 90% of it intact), Diop’s commitment to preserving the story was underscored by her decision to shoot the film in the original courtroom located in the town of Saint-Omer despite the costs involved.

“‘Saint Omer’ is a story that belonged to Saint-Omer the town,” the filmmaker said when prompted to reflect on the reason for this uncompromisable point. A studio in Paris wouldn’t have made the cut either as it was imperative that the space in which the events took place was honored. “It needed to be shot there in respect to the relationship between documentary and fiction.”

Diop’s fidelity to the original story permeated the entire production, including a cast development period of almost two years, informing the cast’s approach to getting acquainted with their characters. While the process was tedious, for Malanda it was an opportunity to get further acquainted with Laurence Coly, the dramatization of Kabou whose real-life story she wasn’t already familiar with before joining the project. What she did already understand was Diop’s work ethic and consistency.

“I felt that, if she entrusted me with this role, it meant that only I could do it,” said the actress who, admittedly, didn’t immediately accept Diop’s proposition. “It took three days for me to respond because I wanted to make sure it was a ‘yes’ that went beyond the excitement of being involved in an amazing movie. I wanted a ‘yes’ that spoke to my commitment to this complex and layered story.”

Contrary to common belief, Malanda was never a thespian, although she isn’t new to acting. She starred in Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s 2014 drama “Mon Amie, Victoria” (“My Friend, Victoria”). It was her first film (“Saint Omer” is the second). Coincidentally, she also played the role of a mother with a daughter who is the result of an unplanned pregnancy; although the scenarios in each film, while both prompted by difficult choices the mother makes, are very different. Still, in each case, Malanda tapped into an actor’s instinct that stems from raw talent and discipline to deliver convincing performances.

Her specific preparation to successfully inhabit the complex and daunting role of Coly in “Saint Omer,” included a lengthy pre-production period with Diop, punctuated by rehearsals and hours spent learning her portion of a screenplay that featured long paragraphs of uninterrupted monologues.

Kayije Kagame as Rama

During a process that unfolded organically, both director and actress agreed that it would be best not to involve an acting coach to avoid potentially distorting Kabou’s testimony by filtering the extraordinary account through conventional acting exercises.

And in the months leading up to the shoot, an initially scheduled 10 to 12 workshop sessions with Diop, which were to be spent refining Malanda’s performance, eventually became two.

And not only was she unfamiliar with Fabienne Kabou’s real-life story, but there also was never a meeting between the two women, even if only to assist the actress in her preparation to manifest the film’s dramatization of the account.

“I never met Fabienne Kabou in person, but I did so much research and delved further than I ever did before for any character, so much so that, to me, it feels like I’ve met her, like I know her,” said Malanda.

Her research included recognition of their shared specificities. Malanda, like Kabou and the fictionalized Coly, are all Black French women immigrées of African descent. Both Kabou and her doppelganger Coly immigrated to France to pursue higher education. Although highly westernized, both were born and raised in Senegal where their cultural context and background lies. For Malanda, honoring this experience meant first delving further into the particularities before speaking to the more universal themes.

“I am of Congolese (Brazza), Angolan, and Portuguese descent,” the actress said. “I spent most of my life in France so there are certain experiences of Laurence I had to deeply study for me to be able to articulate the nuances in the manifestations of our respective experiences as Black women.”

These director/actor processes collectively were driven by Diop’s pursuit of authenticity which speaks to her documentary filmmaking practice, creating an environment that allowed for more “first-time feel” takes. And it worked!

Guslagie Malanda as Laurence Coly

Diop relied on Malanda’s instincts, and the actress leaned on her own resourcefulness, which included sharing the “Saint Omer” screenplay with close friends to help identify universal iterations of specific emotions; as well as employing the mindful breathing techniques specific to the Tai Chi practice, which she utilized during the delivery of lengthy monologues; and watching a lot of films to observe other actors.

Deepening Malanda’s understanding of Kabou’s motivations in the process of becoming Laurence Coly was an overwhelming experience — a journey of acknowledging all the emotions moving through her; seizing and effectively channeling them.

“I am someone who cries very little, but with this film, I accepted the frequent nightmares, the tears, the loss of my sense of self, I embraced the madness,” she said.

Certainly, at a time when film production sets are under more scrutiny than ever, in an effort to curb the exploitation of performers, Diop was cognizant of the vulnerable situations in which she placed her star actress. “I wanted the cast to progressively and carefully get acquainted with the characters as I knew this could be a delicate, and dangerous process,” she said.

And as Malanda acknowledged and utilized her shared specificities with Coly in strengthening her performance, Diop’s fascination with Kabou and her story informed her direction. Indeed, she attended Kabou’s 2016 trial, although she has stressed that the character Rama (Kayije Kagame) — a professor and novelist who observes the trial in order to write about the case — isn’t a representation of her.

Regardless, for the filmmaker, the entire experience was cathartic. “Diving further into this project allowed me to forgive my mother and forgive myself as a mother,” she said. Diop has publicly disclosed the “very deep postpartum depression” she contended with after the birth of a child, and how the real-life trial of Kabou helped her heal.

Relational specificities like these were arguably instrumental to how director and actor approached their respective roles, and, in essence, buttressed their collaboration. It’s palpable in the results. Telling a universal story through the lens of a very unlikely “protagonist” endowed with such depth and complexity, is a most impressive feat.

And as the film opens theatrically in the U.S. with a potential Oscar nomination in the balance, the filmmaker is interested in nothing more than what the film will unveil in the hearts and minds of audiences. “The silence is the room left for the spectator to project their own questions, their own emotions onto,” she said. “All I wanted was for the world to listen to this woman recount her life journey.”

“Saint Omer” kicked off its U.S. theatrical run on Friday, January 13. Check local listings.